The Writing Table

john-hotchkisFourth generation native of Southern California and a long time member of the UCLA Anderson Board of Visitors, John Hotchkis is a remarkable financial adviser and philanthropist. He is also the founder, chairman and CEO of Ramajal LLC, an investment advisory firm. He has been a Regent of the University of California and has been recognized for his keen business acumen and interest in the welfare of the UC system. His extensive leadership portfolio includes chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and chairman of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, director and president of Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles and Planned Parenthood/Los Angeles, director of City Year, a trustee of The Lawrenceville School and the Robert Louis Stevenson School.

He recently penned an article called “The Writing Table” that I thought was fascinating and engaging. I encourage you to read it as well.

The outrageously talented Mel Brooks once said, “Filling a page with words is hard work.” Heavens, if it’s such hard work for Mr. Brooks, the rest of us are just selling “bundled wind.” Yet, for many of us the challenge remains to try and live up to Francis Bacon’s wonderful comment, “Reading makes a full man, conversation makes a ready man, and writing makes an exact man.” Needless to say, in today’s world, the exact part is clearly a moving target. It is somewhat like the young lady leaving the cocktail party and telling the hostess, “I feel more like I do now then when I arrived.”

We all know dreaded technology has now removed much of the need by most people to actually write, particularly to each other. Email and texting is so much easier. Yes, we will always have journalists, authors, and the like. But there was a time in our history when our President ran the country from a writing table. Yes, a writing table. That was the most used form of communication. In 1775, our government established the post office as the first department (and appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first United States Postmaster General). Author Jon Meacham in “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”, notes that by the time Adams and Jefferson died on July 4th 1826, they had exchanged a total of 329 letters in their lifetimes, 158 from 1812 until the end. All our early Presidents wrote prodigiously, mostly about their frustrations dealing with an obviously inexperienced, yet very egotistical Congress. Many years later Will Rogers said, “We would certainly slow the aging process down if it had to work its way through Congress.” Can’t say there has been much change.

Also, in 1811 John Eppes, Jefferson’s son-in-law, must have been looking at a crystal ball. Jefferson wrote Madison that year quoting Eppes, “The rancor of party was revived with all its bitterness during the last session of Congress. United by no fixed principles or objects and destitute of everything like American feelings, so detestable a minority never existed in any country…Their whole political creed is contained in a single word, ‘opposition’… They pursue it without regard to principle, to personal reputation, or the best interest of the country.”

Our founding fathers learned to write at a young age. They had to, assuming they wished to communicate with anyone out of earshot. Today, kids old enough to hold a pen are placed in front of a computer and given the latest iPhone. When forced to write, all they can do is print. Spelling and grammar have become irrelevant. Reminds me of that old country western song, “I would have wrote you a letter, but I couldn’t spell ‘yuck’!” No one gets excited anymore to learn the only English word that ends in the letters “mt” is dreamt or that ‘racecar’, ‘kayak’, and ‘level’ are all the same whether they are read left to right or right to left (palindromes). Heavens, our leaders of today would more than likely have trouble writing a “to-do list.”

How did this country survive a very awkward early history and then, somewhere down the line, become the most powerful nation in the world? It’s a little perplexing. I bet not even the Shadow knows. Remember, George Washington lost more battles in seven years than he won. As luck would have it, the British generals were not varsity material. Then the French came to our aid at Yorktown. When the war ended, America barely limped to victory. Once again, we got lucky. There were some awfully bright guys who were ready to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Historians have probably written a hundred books about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and of course Lincoln. They faced enormous challenges. Our political woes of today just don’t hold a candle to the savage Congressional debates of the past. How about slavery? Apparently we lost somewhere around 750,000 men in the Civil War, but somehow the country kept going.

I have just finished Robert Merry’s book about James K. Polk, our 11th President. As happens from time to time with our Presidents, number eleven wasn’t considered the quickest guy on the block. As they say, down deep he appeared to be very shallow. Not only that, he only wanted to serve one term. Imagine. He didn’t much like people. He did not have the forceful presence of Andrew Jackson, nor Henry Clay’s famous wit. He did have an absolute conviction that he was a man of destiny. Underneath his veil of dullness, he possessed significant analytical skills and a clear zest for bold action. Frequently underestimated, he could often outmaneuver his adversaries. As an example of how history may repeat itself, his party controlled both the House and the Senate, but was so split he continually endured a terrible time with his own people (to say nothing about the very vocal Whigs who hated him). He just was not a natural leader.

Amazingly, despite his shortcomings, Polk somehow managed in his one term to bring Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, California, and the Oregon territory (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho) into the United States. In other words, he created about one third of what the U.S. is today. Polk did all this from his writing table, day and night. He took a huge political beating over the war in Mexico. Communicating with his generals took days, and these guys were not very good to start with (what is it about generals?). In his diary we learn about the relentless wounds he incurred dealing with Congress before he finally got his way. He died completely exhausted four months after he left office.

Communications today is a whole different barrel of fish. Maurine Dowd recently described it as, “Everybody is continually connected to everybody else on Twitter, Facebook, on Instagram, on Reddit, emailing faster and faster with a suffocating flood of information. Everybody is talking at once in a hypnotic hyperdin…the cocktail party from hell.” We have evolved a very long way from the writing table!
It’s no secret, all this amazing advancement in communications has made a huge impact on the world’s financial markets. Even transactions of only a decade ago were done in slow motion relative to today’s hyper speed. Roll back time a couple of hundred years, and everything moved at a glacial pace. At our nation’s founding, most wealth came from owning land and farming. It doesn’t get more long term that that! Now everything happens so fast, it’s a bit scary.

Here is an idea. To dispel the rat race in the financial markets, pretend you are living back in the writing table days. Slow things down a bit. Maybe even write a letter! Try not to react to every statement a Fed Governor makes or what some hot-shoe equity strategist recommends on CNBC. Stay fully invested in the best run companies you can find. You want healthy balance sheets and a history of dividend increases. Yes, the U.S. stock market is up 150% or so from March 2009 and has been up as much as 20% so far this year. Such a steep trajectory often makes an investor want to sell everything, take the money, and hide under his bed.

Typical for this time of year, when the heavy traders go to the beach, stocks usually slip a bit. Keep in mind markets do fluctuate. They don’t go straight up or straight down (hopefully). All this volatility I’m sure adds to your anxieties. Think long term. Our wobbly economy does show signs of recovery and Europe’s economy has a weak but discernible pulse. Coming up will be a German election at the end of September, the usual U.S. debt ceiling debate in October, and probably somewhere along the line an announcement of the new Fed Chairman. But more importantly, significant U.S. economic growth is on its way. This will be translated quickly to corporate profits. All the talk about addiction and tapering has become old news, as well as the “new normal” in Chinese growth and the mess in the Middle East.

People who argue the United States has fallen behind and is not the country it used to be are nuts. We are the headquarters of innovation and entrepreneurship. There is simply no other country that comes close. It is what we do here. And we do it very well. Britt Harris, the accomplished CIO of the $117 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas, recently summed it up nicely, “We are living in the early years of the American Empire. We have the soundest economy, the most innovation, the best rule of law, a relatively deep spiritual core, a competitive banking system, and the largest and best military force in the history of mankind.” And remember, it all started with the writing table just 237 years ago!