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Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Where Have We Been?

Can it really be a month or more since our last post? I mean that last post was one of the better ones, but not really good enough to hold all you faithful readers for so long. So, just where have we been?

I was supposed to go to New Orleans on business the night of Feb.29 for a six day stay and hoped to do a post on the 28th. However, I wasn't feeling particularly well that night and was pretty sure my coronary arteries had been giving me those disturbing signals that it was time for an intervention - I'd had one in 1993 and another in 1998. So rather than let me pack for my trip, my wife prevailed upon me to call my cardiologist, and his covering partner, upon hearing my symptoms gave me simple and direct advice - go to the emergency room. And so we did.

Now once a hospital gets a hold of you and confirms that "something's going on," you are a prisoner. In this case, the sentence was 16 days, over the course of which I had two diagnostic and three therapeutic procedures, and also spent two fairly interminable weekends when nothing much happened other than a fair amount of reading, TV on a limited cable package (No GAC, Golf Channel sporadically, only CSPAN 2, no premium movie channels, God, how spoiled am I?), and thankfully a stream of guests that included daily visits from my wife and daughter, not to mention lots of phone calls from friends and family (they let you use cell phones in the hospital now!). My daughter and I rediscovered the magic of playing cards (Gin Rummy and Casino, the games of choice), proving that no trial is without its compensating joys.

In this day and age, if your work is done with your brain rather than with your hands and muscles, you can still keep up in the hospital, and I took calls throughout, including chairing my Board Meeting. I finally got out March 15, and was back in the office Monday.

Rather than go through the gory details of my malady and treatment, let me list some observations regarding the current state of our medical system (still largely pre-Obamacare, thank goodness), at least as practiced at our top local heart center. First, I am consistently impressed and surprised at the continuing evolution and progress medical practitioners have achieved, and especially how adaptive they are at incorporating new technology. Lest anyone believe that patients are lured toward the most expensive treatments, I found that the doctors seriously evaluated the alternatives available, freely discussed them with me, and invariably chose what they believed was best for me. So whereas bypass was the weapon of choice in 1998 (since angioplasty and stents were ringing up problematic stats), today bypass is avoided where atherectomy (using a drill to dissolve plaque in the artery) can be used, and where coated stents with anti-platelet medicines can be applied to keep arteries open. Not that this is an inexpensive technique and doesn't require consummate skill to perform, nor does it come with any guarantees, but it is now well understood that using veins as bypass grafts is not a permanent solution. Veins, unlike arteries, just can't take the pounding. Where bypass is used, beating heart surgery is now a viable and well tested option for many patients. These represent amazing advances in a short period.

Another thing that seems to have changed is that there is a better understanding of the electrical problems in the heart that can be a byproduct of coronary artery disease and a side effect of treatment. The result is sophisticated monitoring and testing of heart rates (even the nurses have become adept at interpreting EKG's) and more insistence that irregularities be addressed. This extends hospital stays, but it might also extend lives.

One thing not changing is that heart healthy diets are still fairly unappetizing. In fact, the heart healthy diet presumes the patient is probably pre-diabetic or worse, so along with fat, salt and cholesterol, sugar and starch are significantly curtailed. That didn't stop the cafeteria from sending up a slice of birthday cake for me. I guess the message is that one can always allow oneself the rare indulgence.

Luckily, alcohol did not make the banned list, although it seems that moderation, not necessarily my strong suit, will now have to be self enforced. Probably, not going to New Orleans extended my life.

So even though I was confined and isolated from the world as we usually know it, the world did proceed, to what end who knows? We still have Mitt Romney wasting time and money in his never ending battle with that pea shooter Rick Santorum, the Iranians and Israeli's drawing imaginary lines in the desert sand while the US leaks reasons why the Israeli's should not take the action everyone knows they eventually must, the continuing useless quagmire in Afghanistan (need I remind everyone, Obama's "war of necessity"), gas prices rising, the Keystone pipeline not being built, a compromise JOBS program finally passing the House overwhelmingly only to run into Democrats' determination to not do anything in the Senate, and the Mets ownership settling their Madoff lawsuit for just little enough to maintain control of the team and go on torturing their fans. In the near future, we have the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on Obamacare, by far the hottest ticket in Washington. Could you imagine scoring a seat or two for that and putting it up on Stubhub? Sweet.

In other news, the Knicks have won four straight convincingly under their new coach, March Madness provided some entertaining upsets though the main impression has been an epidemic offensive incompetence among the tournament teams, and the Islanders provided a final swoon to insure there will again be no playoff games in Uniondale this year.

By the way, I did not attempt to fill out an NCAA bracket this year, so I can be pretty objective about watching these games. I have to say the most impressive teams have been Michigan State, Kentucky, and yes, Xavier so far. I think North Carolina is too banged up to contend at this point, and Kansas didn't really show me much.
Today notwithstanding, the market has ground higher, climbing the proverbial wall of worry, but on low volume and lower enthusiasm. Those are signs that it might be toppy, so today's downdraft was not surprising and we could have more down days (though May rather than April is typically the bad month for stocks). We didn't get to trade for a couple of weeks, and will make up for those transactions over the next few weeks, but we have been comfortable mixing in a healthy share of preferred's, TIPS and gold to take some of the risk out. We are also getting our Con Ed preferred's called in at a nice gain - I think that happens in May. We'll take it. Here's the list of transactions since that last long ago post.

On 2/17, we bought 50 shares of AstraZeneca (AZN) at 45.14, a "zero buy." On 2/21, we bought 100 shares of Hartford Financial preferred (HIG.PR.A) for the IRA at 23.01. On 2/22 we bought 100 shares of J.M. Smuckers (SJM) at 72.11, a value buy. Then on 2/24, we bought 50 shares of Lancaster Colony (LANC) at 69.02, another zero buy. On 2/27, we sold 100 shares of Hubbell A (HUBA) at 73.05. We had bought these shares on 12/22/00 for 23.56. Triples are nice even if they take eleven years. On 2/28, we bought 100 shares of Protective Life preferred (PLP) for the IRA at 23.93. Then came the enforced hiatus. On 3/16, we bought 100 shares of Newmont Gold (NEM)at 53.29, a value buy. Then on 3/19, we sold those 100 shares of SJM we had just bought on 2/22, getting 77.70 for them. Who wouldn't take 7% on a consumer stock in just under a month? Today, we added a new (old) name, E.I. Dupont (DD), a Cramer Mad Money recommendation, to the portfolio. For our opening purchase, we bought 50 shares at 52.70. Most definitely a zero buy - even though only 14 times earnings, this stock's balance sheet is highly leveraged.

Good to hear from you again. Many of us will hope that moderation doesn't get in your way too much. Stay well.
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