the political situation here is an incredible mess!!! Although the country is actually running fairly smoothly. Thailand has not had a functioning government since February. That's when the breathtakingly corrupt prime minister and his cronies in government finally reached a level of corruption even Thailand couldn't handle. After weeks of mass protests and a rigged snap election that the opposition parties boycotted (the key members of the country's Election Commission were later thrown in jail for this travesty), the courts overturned the election and demanded a new one. It will probably be held in October. Until then, the country is unable to make serious policy decisions. Not only that, the courts are now considering whether to order Thailand's former governing political party disbanded! Thailand is in the odd situation of being under rule by the law, rather than of the law. The good news about all this, of course, is that the country has resorted to the courts rather than the military to solve its problems. This reflects a rather impressive political maturity for this part of the world. After all, the last coup in this country came only 14 years ago, and like many of the others it involved a great deal of civilian blood being shed.Thailand's most recent putsch came barely one month later, turning these words into ashes in the mouth. The coup may have been justifiable, since the previous government was indeed corrupt. However, its successor has shown itself to be incompetent. The political situation is still a mess, and Thailand's political, social and economic lives all suffer. There is still a great deal of blood being spilled in this country, but it is mostly limited to the three (Muslim) southernmost provinces. A tragic, shadowy insurgency has been going on down there for three and a half years, and both governments have ham-handedly handled it from the start. People are being killed by both the terrorism of the insurgents and nastiness of the military, who waltz over western concepts of human rights. Unless there's a particularly horrific incident, the almost daily killings are covered on the inside pages of the Bangkok Post.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I recently went with some members of my Rotary club to a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma (Myanmar) border, where we were managing a project. It was extraordinary to appreciate again how different the two countries are. At one point we went to a temple, half of which was recently moved by international agreement to the Myanmar side of the border. Once the border dispute was settled, the Myanmar authorities destroyed the village on their side and forced the Shan villagers to flee to Thailand. The army took over the concrete temple buildings and filled them with soldiers. The border now bristles with these people, who have also laid land mines just inside their country. It's hard to believe the cruelty of the Burmese government to its ethnic (for example, Shan) minorities. This kind of thing is routine. On the positive side, a sort of "normal" life has been created in the camp compliments of the Buddhist temple and an NGO. The people live in single-family thatched bamboo huts, the kids receive a basic education at the nearby temple, many of the women receive vocational training like dressmaking and crafts, and the men and some of the younger women go off to the fields to pick chillies or whatever happens to be in season. Of course, they do not have Thai citizenship so their movements are at the discretion of the Thai officials. Who knows what the future holds for them, but at least for now they don't have to live in fear. An Australian man, Laurie Maund, is the advocate for these people. Among many other accomplishments, Laurie is a driving force behind education for AIDS prevention in Northern Thailand and across the border. He spent many years as a traveling monk (no home and no possessions except for an umbrella which served as a shelter) in Isaan in northeastern Thailand. For my wife and me, Thailand now has much of the feeling of home. Still, the cultural differences are many, and profound. In particular, Thais see the world quite differently from the way we view it in the West. We have both read (and observed) a great deal that deals with this topic. Here is our quick summary and general observations: Westerners see things as rather black and white, while East Asians see them as heavily nuanced by relationships. Beliefs in the equality of man and in human rights are very real in the west. In east Asia, patron-client relationships are more important. And the immediate family is an incredibly powerful social unit. As I wrote to my friends in Canada last August,
Thursday, May 10, 2007
There is a phenomenon in stock market investment known as "seasonality." In Canada we sometimes summarize it with the epithet "Buy when it snows, sell when it goes." More commonly, investors say to "Sell (stocks) in May, and stay away." This strange cycle - essentially, it means that stocks don't do well in the northern summer - has been studied quite a bit, and many use it as an investment strategy.
According to the simplistic version of the strategy, you should own stocks only between Halloween and, say, mid-May. For the rest of the year, you should store your cash in a sock under the mattress or, better, in a money market fund. Here is a brief explanation.
Yale Hirsch dramatically illustrated the seasonal approach in the 1996 Stock Trader’s Almanac. In his article, he hypothesized an investor who placed $10,000 in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index during the period November through April, but left it in cash for the rest of the year. Between 1950 and 1994, her investment would have compounded to $173,788. On the other hand, if she had invested only from May through October, her nest egg would have grown to a mere $15,285.
Physician-turned-stock-market-investor Mark Vakkur later proposed a refinement of this idea – like Hirsch, using hindsight to take a long look at the behaviour of the markets. Following his strategy, you would be invested in a growth mutual fund nine months out of each year, as follows: You would invest all your money during the months of November through January and March through April. You would invest half of your money during the months of October, August and February and keep the other half in a money market fund. You would keep all your money in a money market fund during the months of May through June and September. This strategy cunningly keeps you out of the market during the months in which US markets perform worst.
Vakkur’s study showed that $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 in this way would have grown to $997,620 between 1950 and 1996. By comparison, $10,000 invested in the S&P 500, using a buy-and-hold strategy, would have grown to only $327,388 during the 47-year period.
To improve upon Vakkur’s strategy, you might want to take advantage of the seasonality of energy stocks.
In a study of the period 1980 to 2001, George Vasic of UBS Warburg found that North American energy stocks gained between 8.8 percent and 10.1 percent during the three-month period March through May. Thus, if you had put $10,000 to work in energies during those months only, at the end of the 22-year period your investment would have been worth about $65,000. If the same pattern were to continue for 47 years (the length of time covered by Vakkur’s study of the S&P), the value of your investment would climb to more than half a million dollars. Yet it would only have been at work three months of the year.
Stock market seasonality is not a North American phenomenon, by any means. A recent report from McLean and Partners observes that
Research conducted in 37 markets by Bouman of Aegon Asset Management and Jacobsen of Erasmus University Business School Rotterdam, reviewed performance data covering a thirty-year period and found that the ‘May’ effect is particularly strong and highly significant in some of the European countries and also found it to be robust over time. In the UK, the researchers found that the Sell-in-May effect dated back to 1694. They found that this phenomenon was true in 36 of 37 developed and emerging markets studied in the sample. In the US, the same researchers found that the effect does not manifest itself as strongly in the general market index, but it is strong in several individual sectors. For example, the effect is almost absent in sectors relating to consumer consumption and utilities but very strong in the production, construction and real estate sectors.
By the way, the photo shows dazed investors on Wall Street on Black Monday, October 29, 1929. That is the date of America's most famous one-day stock market crash, and it was the day the Great Depression began. In the first few hours of trading, all the gains of the previous year were wiped out.
But think about it. If any investors of the period had been using something like Yale Hirsch's strategy, they would have been out of the market that day, waiting until November to get back in.
Monday, May 07, 2007
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
One of the great artefacts of Thailand’s past is the Golden Buddha - cast in gold, and now housed in Wat Traimit in Bangkok. The Buddha image originated in Sukothai, the first major Thai kingdom, 700 or more years ago. You can tell the image is from the Sukothai period because the head is egg-shaped: Buddha looks more like an Indian than a present-day Thai.
At some point – probably before the eclipse of Sukhothai at the beginning of the 15th century – the Buddha image was camouflaged with a thick layer of terracotta, which was painted and inlaid with bits of coloured glass.
Many Buddha statues were moved from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, the capital and namesake of the kingdom that came to dominate Sukhothai. This Buddha apparently made the move in 1403. Ayutthaya's end came when it was conquered by the Burmese in 1767, and the capital city razed. Twenty-five years later, Bangkok was established as the permanent capital of the third great Thai kingdom, and most of the surviving statues were moved there. The Golden Buddha - still coated in terracotta, remember - was housed in a shed with a corrugated iron roof for many years in a rather decrepit wat. Eventually the land was taken over by a cement company.
A new home for the Buddha was constructed in Bangkok’s Chinatown in 1954. As an army of workers moved it slowly toward its new digs pieces of terracotta broke off, revealing that this sculpture – ten feet high, and weighing nearly 5.5 tons – was made of 18-karat gold. The discovery that it was gold came on May 25th 1955 – just short of the year 2500 in the Buddhist calendar, which begins with Buddha’s passing. (According to one version of the story, a piece of heavy equipment dropped the Buddha, and that is when its solid gold substance became known.}
Whatever the case, these events coincided approximately with the 2500th year of the Buddhist era, and many people believed the discovery was therefore a miracle. This lovely gold sculpture is still in its small shelter in Chinatown, with minimal security. I suppose that if you weigh so much, not much security is necessary.
To get an idea of this Buddha’s size, consider the elephant tusks in the foreground of the photo. According to a poorly-translated history available at the temple, the Buddha's dimensions are “6 cubits and 5 inches at the lap span, and 7 cubits and 1 inch high” - roughly 2.75 by 3 metres.
The accidental unveiling of this Buddha as being gold lent support to the highly controversial Ramkhamhaeng stele – a stone tablet from the 14th century that is the foundation-stone of traditional Thai history. Many scholars believe this tablet is a 19th-centruy forgery. However, the fact that the stele mentions large golden Buddhas in Sukhothai (none were known at that time) gives at least some support to its authenticity.
History and Biography: In the Thai tradition, every buddha image is a living object. Thus, it is customary in Thailand to drape their images in the cool season, to keep them warm. A history of a Buddha image like the one above, sketchy though it is, is therefore in a sense a biography of the image. Within that context, here is a brief study of the life of Buddha - the enlightened teacher and the founder of the religion.
The story of Buddha’s birth, life, doctrines and death is a vital part of Thai life. Every Thai child knows at least the outline of Buddha’s story. As in all such stories, it is often difficult to distinguish historical truth from cherished myth, but myth is probably more important. It is myth that people repeat and believe, and it is the teachings often revealed in the myth-telling by which they try to guide their lives.
According to Buddhist tradition and canon, the religion began in the sixth century BCE with the birth of a prince named Siddhartha Gautama near the northern border of today’s India. He was raised amid the wealth and luxury that only a royal family could provide. A prophecy about his future led his father, king Suddhodana, to shield him from knowledge of the pain and suffering so widespread in the world. Gautama grew to manhood and married in innocence.
At the age of 29, however, he witnessed four signs that showed him the true state of the world and changed the course of his entire life. Those signs were an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk – each of them actually a god in disguise, intervening to help Gautama learn about sickness, old age, death and the spiritual quest. Having seen this part of life, Gautama could no longer permit himself to continue his worldly and luxurious life. He resolved to follow the monk’s lead, retiring from the world to seek enlightenment.
He left his family (including wife and child), his wealth and his social rank and became a monk, begging for his food from house to house. He sought teachers, placed himself under the tutelage of famed Brahmans who instructed him in the methods of meditation, and experimented with asceticism.
He felt that having to beg for his food was in itself a hindrance to his ascetic practices and so he set himself progressively stricter practices. First, he limited himself to the fruit which dropped from the very tree under which he sat; then, to a single fruit; then to a single grain of rice; and finally, to a single sesame seed each day. His body became emaciated. “When he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine. His hair fell out and his skin became black and withered.” For six years he practiced this austerity, but in the end he concluded that enlightenment was not to be achieved by such extreme measures, and he abandoned them.
After eating a meal of milk and porridge one day, he took his noonday rest in the shade of a grove of trees on a river bank, and in the evening he went to sit under a bodi tree. As he sat in meditation beneath the tree, he resolved not to stir from that spot until he had achieved supreme and absolute wisdom. An evil god known to the Thai as Nara tried to frighten him from his place, but the future Buddha used his power of loving kindness – his compassion – to win a peaceful victory over this interloper.
During the night he successively attained the knowledge of previous existences, the divine eye with which he could see the beings of all 31 planes of existence, and finally the bliss of complete emancipation by which he reached supreme wisdom. This was the moment of supreme of supreme enlightenment. He had become Buddha, an enlightened one. Buddha began preaching sermons, and throughout the rest of his long life he traveled, preached and converted an ever-growing number of followers to his wisdom. In his 80th year, surrounded by loving disciples, he passed away into Nirvana.