Sunday, August 19, 2012

Be Careful What you wish for

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“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” said a friend of my parents, as I splashed around in our neighbors’ pool with several other kindergartners.

“Space shuttle pilot,” I responded without skipping a beat. Thus went one of the first manifestations of a life-long trait I’ve never done anything half-way.

By the third grade, I was so obsessed with aeronautics and space flight, I thought of nothing else. I received the “International Encyclopedia of Aviation” for my eighth birthday, a volume as heavy as a manhole cover and as readable as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fascinated as I was at the time with “fighter jets!”, I read every page of it. I memorized facts and figures the way certain kids memorize sports stats. By the fifth grade, I could name every missile in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals; I could describe every type of aircraft that existed, what was flown by whom, by what air force, and when.

This all of course changed.


In seventh grade I started my own business selling candy. This was nothing new, since I’d been selling candy since fourth grade. What was new was that this time I sold stock in my enterprise. Already with a reputation for business savvy, my friends eagerly snapped up the shares, driving the price to levels of insanity not seen since l. This was fine with me, of course, as I was on the receiving end.

Flush with capital from my recent success, I decided to broaden my horizons. After all, junior high could only offer economies of scale. Armed with a hot tip from the Wall Street Journal, a recent Christmas gift, I looked to NASDAQ with my hard-earned savings of $l50. I called up my parents’ broker and told him to buy me eight of Silk Greenhouses.

“Eight hundred?” he responded sounding amused.

“No,” I said, “Just eight.” Hey- I thought to myself, one hundred and fifty dollars is a lot for a l-year-old.

My parents were a bit skeptical about buying into a company that sold artificial flowers. But I reassured them. In just two years, they had gone from l stores to 57 and were planning a major expansion into California and New York. Besides, with so many people working, who had time to water their plants? Sure it was risky, but I still had fifty-two years till retirement and I could afford a bit of risk.

In the ensuing nine months, the stock market zoomed ahead, Silk Greenhouses leading the way, up over 80%. Trouble, though, soon struck. The stock seemed to hit a ceiling.

Then came the day of reckoning. November 0, l8, Silk Greenhouses announced it was having trouble with its store expansion and that third quarter earnings would be flat. The stock dropped like a stone, losing half its value in just one day. A year later to the day, the death knell was heard as Silk Greenhouses declared Chapter ll. Later SEC investigators found that in the weeks prior to the announcement, there had been heavy insider selling. News later came out that the company had been lying about its financial situation for over a year. Several key officers ended up either in jail or somewhere in the Caribbean. I was out l50 bucks.

Despondent over this setback, I pondered my next move. I thought about re-organizing my college education money. Having helped fill out my taxes, I realized that, now that I was fourteen, I was in a lower tax bracket. Thus, having all my money in tax-free municipal bonds made little sense. With inflation at .5% we were barely keeping even earning 4% in our tax-free Muni’s. I figured I had long enough to go until college so that any bumps in the stock market would be smoothed out between now and then, so we’d probably do better there. This caused my parents more than a few qualms. After all, now we were talking about real money. Eventually, though, I convinced them, and we placed the money in four funds oriented towards growth stocks and long-term bonds. I thought I might even be able to keep up with ever rising tuition costs.

I carry with me those painful lessons I learned from that first plunge into the stock market the sure bet often isn’t, and higher risk means higher potential for reward ... and for disaster.

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