by Sydney M. Williams
May is the month, at least in New England, when blossoms open. Dogwoods, Cherry and Apple trees show their colours. Forsythia and Rhododendrons bloom, as do roses; Peonies begin to open. The days are warm and the nights cool. It is one of the calendar’s most beautiful months. But not for everyone and not every place.
Here at home: At least 29 people, with several still missing, are dead from floods that devastated Texas and Oklahoma. An Amtrak train, traveling over 100 miles per hour (twice the speed limit) derailed outside Philadelphia, killing six and critically injuring five.
Several gangs of whacko bikers in Waco, Texas got into a gunfight leaving nine dead, several wounded and a hundred and seventy arrested. Two police officers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi were shot and killed.
And overseas: ISIS, once known as the junior varsity of Islamic terrorism and now infamous for beheading Christians, killed one captive with a bazooka, then danced around what was left of his body. During the month, ISIS took the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra, brutally murdering many of those unable to flee. Of significance: they restored some city services in Palmyra, to endear their governing system to the populace. They boasted that they would be able to secure a nuclear weapon within twelve months – perhaps only bluster, but a claim that cannot be taken lightly. Boko Haram, Nigeria’s answer to ISIS, continued its rampage, killing forty-three in the town of Gubio. They now control an area the size of Belgium. In the past few days, Russia has amassed thousands of troops and hundreds of pieces of military weaponry on the Ukrainian border. Presumably they are not there on holiday. China continues to construct man-made islands in the South China Sea. It is doubtful they will be used as vacation spots for China’s plutocrats.
At month’s end, eight Republicans had announced for President. Seven others are in the “probable” category, including two who show up near the top of most polls – Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. On the Democrat side, the field, for all intents, is limited to one – Hillary Clinton. (Martin O’Malley did, however, bravely announce his candidacy as the month ended.) If Republicans look like a monkey madhouse, Democrats appear royal, aged and idea-less. In Salt Lake City, the “quake of the lake” 68 year-old Mitt Romney took on 52 year-old Evander Holyfield in a charity match. After the bout Mr. Romney said he would have boxed anyone, as long as Candy Crowley was not the referee. In Garland, Texas a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest provoked two Islamic thugs who fortunately were shot and killed before they carried out their planned terrorist attack. While the contest was seen by many on the Left as unnecessarily provocative, the same people saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a painting of the Madonna covered in elephant feces. Assuredly, the decision to choose an elephant as the contributor was deliberate. The dung of a donkey would have been more appropriate.
David Letterman hosted his last late-night TV show. Bob Schieffer’s final broadcast for CBS’s Face the Nation was the last day on the month. In Yonkers, a city of 200,000, a black bear was spotted, trapped and taken upstate. Dennis Hastert, former Republican Speaker of the House, was accused of making payments to conceal sexual misconduct. On the other hand, Lois Lerner continues in retirement, receiving full pay courtesy of the American taxpayer she swindled. Pew Research released a study detailing the decline in church attendance among all faiths with the exception of Evangelicals. While Democrats looked at the findings as being good for their cause, Robert Putnam, Harvard sociologist and liberal, noted: “[The] social benefits of religion are stronger further down the economic ladder.” New York State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, claimed that the $200 million ad campaign “Start up New York” brought in a total of 76 jobs over a period of a year and a half – not the return cost-conscious citizens expect from their elected leaders. A jury in Boston decided Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the unrepentant Islamic Boston Marathon bomber, should die.
The six leaders of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) were invited by the President to attend a White House meeting to discuss the Iran deal. Four of the leaders, including King Salmon of Saudi Arabia, elected not to attend, sending subordinates in their stead. Wendy Sherman, Mr. Obama’s chief negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, announced she would be leaving the Administration once the June 30 deadline is reached. But the Mideast news was not all bad. A U.S. Special Forces unit conducted a raid deep into Syria and killed a top ISIS commander, Abu Sayyaf. Nevertheless the premature abandonment of those we have pledged to help militarily, as we did in Vietnam and have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither honors our soldiers who fought and died, nor leaves trust or hope among those left behind. Chaos inevitably followed.
Between Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, an Irish fishing trawler snagged a Russian submarine, surprising sailors on both vessels. In England, David Cameron won a surprisingly strong re-election bid, giving the Conservatives a majority in Parliament for the first time since 1992. In Poland, conservative Andrzej Duda won the presidency, ousting existing president Bronislaw Komorowski. It is telling that, at a time when the Left dominates the media and international bodies like the U.N., conservatives have had surprising success.
The Shanghai Market, which has been on a tear – up 52% year-to-date – had another good month (+3.7%), but this time with hiccups. Over a two-day period in the middle of the month, the market lost 8.5%, and then another 6.7% during the month’s final two days. Such volatility does not normally bring comfort to investors. On May 20, Hong Kong listed Hanergy, a solar power company 80% owned by chairman Li Hejun, lost 47% of its value in less than an hour. Mr. Li’s paper losses, which would have been $14 billion, were tempered by his prudent (but certainly unethical if not illegal) decision to short 796 million shares just days before the stock crashed. Takata, the Japanese auto parts company and world’s largest manufacturer of airbags, was ordered to recall 34 million autos for defective airbags, the largest recall in automotive history.
Back in the U.S., financial markets were tepid, but positive. Most major markets made new highs The S&P 500 rose one percent. The NASDAQ Composite was up 2.6 percent. Treasuries declined slightly, oil was flat, gold down and lumber was up. The Dollar rose. The VIX was flat and composite volume continued to decline. First quarter U.S. GDP was revised from up 0.2% to down 0.7%, setting up a possible repeat of 2014. F.A.O. Schwartz, the legendary toy company that was founded during the middle of the Civil War in 1862 and is now owned by Toys “R” Us, announced it would be closing its flagship store in New York, disappointing millions of children and a few collectors of Steiff teddy bears, including my wife.
My friends know that my interest in professional sports is minimal. The only thing exciting about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight, which Mayweather won handily, was the size of the purse – $300 million! American Pharaoh won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The Stanley Cup will match the Chicago Blackhawks against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The NBA championship will be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Winners of both will be determined in June, by which time ice rinks and sweaty gyms will be far from the minds of most people. Alex Rodriquez leapt to fourth place in home runs and broke Lou Gehrig’s American League record for RBIs. But does anyone care? Little League is struggling to get kids to play a sport whose popularity is in decline. Perhaps it is because baseball is a “thinking man’s” sport, or maybe it is because we live in an ADHD world. But it may also reflect a surge in the popularity – at least in the Northeast – of soccer, tennis and lacrosse. The $150 million scandal surrounding FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) did not affect the re-election of Sepp Blatter as the organization’s president. As USA Today put it, “cronyism is alive and well.”
On a more sober note, May 8th marked the 70th Anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. In its wake, it left most European capitals in ruins, economies shattered, an estimated 75 million people dead and millions more wounded, homeless and destitute. Was the war worth it? That is an unanswerable question, but we do know that the world is better off because the Allies won. On May 14th, 1948 the State of Israel came into being – still the lone democracy in the Middle East. Many of its neighbors are still intent on its destruction. Thirty years ago, May 5, 1985, Ronald Reagan went to Bergen-Belsen. With a giant photograph of a white, bloated corpse as a background and fighting back tears, President Reagan acknowledged the inadequacy of empathy: “Here lie people – Jews – whose death was inflicted for no reason other than their very existence…”
In other news, Ireland voted to allow same-sex marriages. The Left persisted in its attacks on social values. Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College and an advocate for universal child care, wrote an op-ed: “Time to rethink our social construct of motherhood.” Her message to mothers: there is no special bond between mother and child – children thrive in quality child care. Really? A German woman, age 65, gave birth to quadruplets, adding to her already large brood of thirteen. Playboy completed a deal in China with a company called Hangdog! And the FDA, in its infinite wisdom, decided that s’mores were unhealthy. They encourage replacing chocolate with strawberries and marshmallows with fat-free yogurt. Will campfires ever be the same?
The great bluesman, B.B. King died at age 99. John Nash, the Princeton mathematician and subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, was killed, along with his wife when they were thrown from a cab on the New Jersey Turnpike. On a sad note, Beau Biden, the 46-year-old son of Vice President Joe Biden, died of a brain tumor. Jim Wright, the former Democrat Speaker of the House who was forced to resign, died at age 92 in his home city of Fort Worth, Texas. Marques Haynes, once of the Harlem Globetrotters and who I saw play in Peterborough, New Hampshire in, I believe, 1952, died at age 99.
With the inevitable march of time, we close the book on May and welcome June and all she will bring.
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.