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Thursday 29 July 2021

Weekend Reading

Reading across disciplines is one of the best ways to improve our investment acumen. Here is a summary of some of the best articles I read this week. If you like this collection, consider forwarding it to someone who you think will appreciate it.

1. America's food monopolies and who actually pays the price

A handful of powerful companies control the majority market share of almost 80% of dozens of grocery items bought regularly by ordinary Americans.

The size, power and profits of these mega companies have expanded thanks to political lobbying and weak regulation which enabled a wave of unchecked mergers and acquisitions. This matters because the size and influence of these mega-companies enables them to largely dictate what America’s 2 million farmers grow and how much they are paid, as well as what consumers eat and how much our groceries cost.

It also means those who harvest, pack and sell us our food have the least power: at least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs are in the food industry. Farms and meat processing plants are among the most dangerous and exploitative workplaces in the country.

Overall, only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food.


2. Swim your way to better brain health

A growing body of research suggests that swimming might provide a unique boost to brain health. Regular swimming has been shown to improve memory, cognitive function, immune response and mood. Swimming may also help repair damage from stress and forge new neural connections in the brain.

Now, there is clear evidence that aerobic exercise can contribute to neurogenesis and play a key role in helping to reverse or repair damage to neurons and their connections in both mammals and fish.

In one study in rats, swimming was shown to stimulate brain pathways that suppress inflammation in the hippocampus and inhibit apoptosis, or cell death. The study also showed that swimming can help support neuron survival and reduce the cognitive impacts of aging. 


3. The world seen through the eyes of Olympic Games

Another point that leaps out is the remarkable consistency of the U.S. compared with other leading nations. The U.S. routinely won 15% to 20% of the medals awarded during most of the 20th century. That figure has been edging down over the past few decades, a reflection that the Games have gone from a Western-dominated event to a more globalized competition featuring the rise of many developing nations. In other words, a lot like world politics and the global economy in general.

China began opening to the world around 1980 and took part in its first Summer Olympics in 1984, where it made a strong initial impression. China's performance has continued to surge dramatically, and it now takes home close to 10% of the medals. When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008, China won more golds than any other country (48), though not as many total medals as the U.S. (100 for China, compared with 112 for the U.S.).

Starting from zero three decades ago, China now has the second-strongest Olympic team — and the world's second-biggest economy — trailing only the U.S. on both counts.

The Soviets invested enormous resources in Olympic sports and quickly surpassed the U.S., winning the most medals at every Summer Games from 1956 to 1992, except for 1968, when the Americans edged them.

Five of the world's most populous countries (India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh) have more than 2.1 billion people — almost 30% of the world's total — and won just six medals combined in Rio.


4. Can you survive the next heat wave? Depends on the humidity.

In reasonable heat, the human body is very good at maintaining a constant internal temperature of 97 to 99 degrees. When it gets hot outside, our bodies produce sweat; when the sweat evaporates, its transformation from liquid water on your skin to water vapor in the air requires energy. That energy comes from your body’s heat, so as the sweat evaporates, your body cools down.

A dry heat feels comfortable because the evaporation happens so fast that you don’t even notice the sweat on your skin. 

Now suppose you’re in the same amount of heat, but in Palm Beach, where the air is incredibly humid. The air is already holding all the water vapor it can hold. So your sweat stays on your skin, and the heat that the sweat is supposed to remove from your body … stays in your body, and accumulates.

Your body has lost its ability to shed heat, and so your core temperature starts creeping up to approach the temperature of the air around you. Let the process go on long enough, and body temperature rises from comfortable 98 to deadly 108.


5. How would we invest if we knew precisely what would happen in the future?

Suppose that our crystal ball had told us on December 31, 1999 that, for the next 11 1/2 years through July of 2011, the US Consumer Price Index (CPI) would rise at an average annual rate of 2.5%. Would we have expected the price of gold to rise by 465% while the inflation-adjusted S&P 500 fell by almost 32% over the same period?

Market veterans remember the 1973-1974 bear market when the DJIA's earnings rose 50% while the Dow dropped almost 50% in price, or the '87 crash during which stocks plunged 43% even when earnings hadn't missed a beat. In 1999, when the stocks of companies that actually made money declined 2%, profitless tech startups soared 82%.

In 2016, Brazil's senior leadership has been embroiled in a vast corruption scandal, President Dilma Rousseff's powers have been suspended due to impeachment proceedings, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy has been forced to resign, and inflation is in double digits. Brazil suffered its worst GDP contraction since 1990. Who would have predicted that EWZ, the Brazil iShares ETF, would be up nearly 60% year to date?

Even if we had a crystal ball, the investment implications of future events and conditions are unknowable. That is why we must diversify.


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