Thursday, October 1, 2015

"The Month That Was - September 2015"

      Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                  October 1, 2015
                                                                                                             
The Month That Was
September 2015

“lo! A ripe sheaf of many golden days
Gleaned by the year in autumn’s harvest ways,
With here and there, blood-tinted as an ember,
Some crimson poppy of a late delight
Atoning in its splendor for the flight
Of summer blooms and joys
This is September.”
                                                                                                                Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

As any month ends, I am always amazed as to how much news gets packed into a mere thirty or thirty-one days. September was no exception. Flash floods in Utah killed nineteen and fires in California destroyed 1000 homes. The refugee crisis in Europe worsened.and Russia sent troops and equipment to Syria. The Pope came to the Americas, first to Cuba and then to the United States. John Boehner announced his intent to resign his seat in Congress and as Speaker of the House. The month saw both Rick Perry and Scott Walker drop out of the Republican race for President, and the e-mail hole Hillary Clinton has dug became deeper.

September serves as an anniversary month. The 11th marked fourteen years since the Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. In our politically correct world, fear of triggering unhappy feelings in others, including our avowed enemies, drives out common sense. It is forgotten that more people were killed that day than sailors at Pearl Harbor or American soldiers on D-Day. The war against Islamic terrorism persists, as we know from ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian-fueled Quds Force, to name only a few. Yet Mr. Obama refuses to put the modifier “Islamic” before the noun “terrorism.” Perhaps for that reason, the world has become more dangerous since he became President. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, fatalities resulting from armed conflict increased by a factor of four since 2010, with the vast majority of the deaths being caused by Islamic groups.

Seventy-five years ago the Blitz in London began. On the night of September 7, 1940, the Blitz began in earnest. By dawn, 600 Londoners were dead and twice as many wounded. In the first 30 days, nearly 6000 civilians were killed. The Blitz only ended in May 1941 when German planes were redeployed for the invasion of Russia. Londoners, instead of being cowed into submission as Hitler expected, proved dauntless and steadfast.  This past month saw Queen Elizabeth overtake Victoria, as Britain’s longest reigning monarch. During the War Elizabeth joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service where she trained as a mechanic and drove a truck. The Second World War officially ended on when Japan officially surrendered aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Overseas, it was the refugee crisis that consumed most of the headlines. The photograph of the drowned three-year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, lying face down in the surf on a Turkish beach near Bodrum will remain in our memories for a long time. The majority of the refugees come from Syria, a country where more than 40% of the population has been displaced. But they also come from other Middle East countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. They come from North African and sub-Sub-Saharan African countries where ruthless dictators, most of whom are Muslim, regularly slaughter those who are not in accord with their religious and political views.

Political extremism, which has characterized the United States for the past several years, has spread to Europe. It could be seen in England where Socialist (and anti-Semitist) Jeremy Corbyn won election as leader of Britain’s Labor party.  It gained ground in Greece with the re-election of Alexis Tsipras in Greece and could be seen in the growing strength of Marine Le Pen in France. Chinese President Xi Jinping was granted a state dinner at the White House. He remains undeterred in his ambitions, as China seeks hegemony in the Pacific. Vladimir Putin grabbed the baton from Barack Obama in the Middle East, as our waffling on Syria and ISIS provided the opportunity he needed. Russia now has troops and equipment, including surface-to-air missiles, on the ground in Syria, where Mr. Putin backs the dictator Bashar al-Assad who Mr. Obama had once promised to remove. Mr. Obama spoke surrealistically at the UN. It was as though he had not been in charge for the past six and a half years. Sounding like his predecessor, he spoke of supporting democracy and human rights. He spoke of Libya where he said we should have done more to fill the vacuum left by Muammar Gadaffi’s death, but did not explain that it was he who was in charge at the time. He sounded like he still had red lines in his portfolio, but all those listening know he does not. Regarding Russia and the Ukraine, he said “we cannot stand by,” yet that is exactly what he has done. As to Cuba, he said: “We have failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people,” but did not explain why it is “we” who need to improve the lives of Cubans, nor did he mention the need for democracy or the failure of the Castros’ regarding human rights.

At home, the Pope’s trip to the U.S. was a welcome distraction from deteriorating conditions overseas and from the goofiness of Donald Trump and the persistent lies of Hillary Clinton. The Pope, while he leads 1.2 billion Catholics world wide, has no political power, other than the power of his pulpit. There is no doubt that he is a good and kindly man. But, in my opinion, he is most effective when he sticks to religious and moral issues, less so when he enters the realm of politics. The nuclear deal with Iran was finalized without, but without Senate approval, as is usual with treaties. Republicans held their second debate, with Carly Fiorina apparently doing the best; though Marco Rubio and Chris Christie performed well. Trump was still Trump and, while his numbers have fallen, he still leads in most polls. By the end of the month the field had been winnowed by two – Rick Perry and Scott Walker. With “Tea Party” Republicans restless, John Boehner announced he would resign as Speaker and also from the seat he has held since 1990. In an interview on CBS, Boehner tellingly said, “It takes more courage to do what you can do, than to try to do what you can’t.” Kevin McCarthy, currently House Majority Leader, is expected to take over as Speaker.

Nervousness in markets persists. September was the most volatile month in equity markets since November 2011, at least as measured by the Dow Jones Industrials being up or down more than 1.5% on a daily basis. The VIX is also at levels last seen at the end of 2011. The yield on the Bloomberg-FINRA High Yield Bond Index is also at levels last seen in December 2011. LIBOR, while still low by historical standards is back to 2012 levels. This softening trend in markets has been underway for a while. The spread between investment grade corporates and high yield corporates has been widening for over a year, and the S&P 500 is roughly where it was fifteen months ago. Even without talking heads on CNBC and Bloomberg, markets adjust. For perspective, since the end of 2007, a couple of months after the S&P 500 reached an interim high, the annual compounded return to that index has been a modest 2.4 percent. Can spreads widen further and stocks go lower? Of course, but we are not at peak speculative levels.

Italy’s Flavia Pennetta won the women’s U.S. Open beating fellow countrywoman Roberta Vinci. The prior day Ms. Vinci had defeated Serena Williams who had been looking for her fourth grand slam title for the calendar year. It was not to be. On the men’s side Novak Djokovic defeated the crowd favorite Roger Federer to take the men’s title. Football season began with Tom Brady, relieved by a federal judge of his four-game suspension, quarterbacking the New England Patriots to a 28-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In other news, NASA scientists, operating Opportunity Mars Rover, have confirmed that surface water was once present on Mars. That suggests the possibility that life once existed on the Red Planet. American soldiers in Afghanistan were punished for blowing the whistle on the enslavement of young boys by Afghan Muslim military officials. Their behavior was deemed “abhorrent,” but in this politically correct age where everything is relative, it was seen as a local law-enforcement matter. The “dancing boys” of Afghanistan are still dancing and being sexually mistreated. Regarding Hillary’s e-mail travails, husband Bill came to her defense. Trying to sound Churchillian, he said he had “never seen so much expended on so little.” Homo Naledi, a new species of our ancestors that buried their dead, was discovered in a cave in South Africa. A Super moon slid across the night sky last weekend and into a full eclipse. The next time such an event happens will be 2033, when some of my grandchildren may well be mothers and fathers.

Yogi Berra died at age 90 on September 22. Like thousands of people I had my own Yogi Berra story. Several years ago, at a New Orleans hotel, I saw him sitting in the lobby. I walked over and introduced myself. We chatted briefly, then he asked me where was I from. I said New York. He then asked, “When are you going back?” I answered, but took his question as a dismissal. His passing is sad, as he was one of the few players left that I remember from my youth, when I listened to the Yankees on the radio in our house in New Hampshire in the early 1950s. Moses Malone, the N.B.A. center who was known as “Chairman of the Boards” for his skills in rebounds, died at age 60. Einar Ingman, who I had never heard of, died at age 85. But I should have. At age twenty-one, he won the Medal of Honor in Korea. He took out two Chinese-manned machine gun nests while badly wounded. A grenade ripped off part of one ear; he was shot in the face, which blinded him in one eye and cost him most of his teeth. Pouring blood, he continued his assault, using his bayonet to kill the last of the gunners. Mr. Ingman was proof of the indomitable courage of Americans when asked to sacrifice for their country.


October is upon us. As we enter the autumn of this year, it seems just to have begun, yet so much has happened.

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