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Monday, April 17, 2006

Back from NY

I’ve been traveling with my high-school-age daughter the last week, and haven’t been around to update the site.  We went to New York with my mom, had a wonderful time playing tourist, and saw three plays, all of which I would recommend for very different reasons.

Two of the shows focus on mother-daughter relationships, which I thought would be appropriate given the traveling party of grandmother, mother, and daughter. 

The first show we saw was “The Light in the Piazza,” at Lincoln Center.  The staging is innovative; I like the “stadium seating” in the theater, which puts the stage below the audience.  Victoria Clark has the main role as the mother, and her range is incredible.  I think the part is written for an alto, but at one point she is singing the higher harmony part in a duet with the actress playing her daughter, who is a soprano.  The sets are minimal, more suggestive than substantial, and the music is gorgeous. 

The second play we saw was very very different.  Lisa Kron’s “Well,” which is described as “a seriocomic investigation about wellness and the mystery of parent/adult child relationships.” This one breaks the fourth wall in several different ways.  It’s performed without an intermission, and you won’t want to miss any of it, so I suggest avoiding liquids with your pre-theater meal.  Kron weaves together stories of her childhood in an integrated neighborhood and her difficulties with allergies as a teenager, and questions why she is healthy now while her mother is afflicted with a variety of ailments. 

The press release describing the play says, “WELL opens with Lisa Kron’s mother sitting on a La-Z-Boy recliner in the middle of the stage.  As the play goes on to deal with Kron’s personal experiences of healing, a comedic coup d’état breaks out.  The actors critique the script, her memories conflict with her flashbacks, her mother interrupts with her own opinions, and Kron finds herself in danger of losing control.  The result is a hilarious and brazen piece that questions our thoughts on the conventions of both theatre and wellness.” That sums it up. 

Pieces of this show keep running through my mind.  It’s funny as well as thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it.  Website:  http://www.wellonbroadway.com

We also saw a classic Broadway musical comedy, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” I have a particular liking for shows with gratuitous dancing and senseless bursting into song.  Norbert Leo Butz is amazing, especially while performing the energetic “Great Big Stuff.” I’d love to bottle whatever he’s on and take it home with me. 

My older daughter is a junior at the University of Delaware, and is very involved on the production side of a lot of student-run shows.  Right now she is stage manager for the Harrington Theater Arts Committee’s production of “Jekyll and Hyde.” This show depends heavily on the actor cast in the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and they cast this one right.  Here is a clip of the very talented Chris Saltalmacchio singing “This Is The Moment." This song takes place right before Dr. Jekyll first drinks the potion that turns him into Mr. Hyde.  My daughter Colleen opens the curtain and organized the crew that moves the lab table into place—I’m so proud.  grin

We saw “Jekyll & Hyde” both Thursday and Friday nights, in an effort to be supportive, but also enjoyed it a great deal.  Unlike “Scoundrels,” this one does not have a happy ending, but it asks the musical question, “How does an individual integrate the good and the evil?”

Saturday we visited the gorgeous Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.  It was a beautiful day and the gardens were nothing short of stunning.  We saw gazillions of tulips, walls covered with orchids, banana trees ... wow. 

Then Saturday night we saw yet another show—UD’s Professional Theater Training Program’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Very well performed rendition of a play I last saw in the 70s when it was being staged by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  The actors playing R&G (or is it G&R?) did a terrific job with the banter and the layers of language Stoppard writes.  The theater PTTP uses is tiny, but the production values are very high. 

Now it’s time to get back to work!  I have big plans for developing this website over the next couple of months.  Stay tuned.

Posted by twcarey on 04/17 at 08:48 AM
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Monday, April 10, 2006

In the Bargain Bin

IN OUR ANNUAL RANKING of online brokers ("Different Strokes for...,” March 6), six browser-based sites and three software-based sites earned less than four stars because of significant shortcomings, which include trade-execution problems, below-average design, loosely integrated research amenities, weak reporting or above-average costs. Even so, one of them may suit your needs, especially if you’re looking for rock-bottom commissions and can live with some of the shortcomings.

Browser-Based Brokers

TradeKing (http://www.tradeking.com) is the new kid on the block, offering very low prices ($4.95 for stock transactions, and $4.95 plus 65 cents per contract for options) and a slick Website. We also like the Probability Calculator, which gives TradeKing clients the ability to estimate the probability that a trading strategy will be successful. On the downside, you have to enter an additional password to place a trade, which seems to be an artifact left over from the late 1990s, and the order-routing technology is weak; it doesn’t get the best pricing. It’s the cheapest of the browser-based brokers, however, undercutting Ameritrade’s Izone by a nickel.

TradeKing’s CEO Rich Hagen contacted me after the article was published in Barron’s to say that the additional password is no longer necessary when placing a trade.  He also states that the order routing technology is in place, with the aim of getting customers the best price, but that he could not provide me with statistics backing that up since the company is so new.  We’ll keep an eye on TradeKing’s price improvement strategies as they develop a track record. 

Charles Schwab (http://www.schwab.com) has greatly improved its marketing, but the Website feels crowded, disjointed, and difficult to navigate. Schwab also fell considerably behind the pack in terms of trading technology this year, as customers can’t place trigger orders—orders that get automatically executed when a specific price or other target is reached—nor can they direct their orders.

Still, the site’s research capabilities are terrific, although they may not link easily to a customer’s portfolio holdings—you may have to do some spelunking through a series of tabs and tickers. Its stock picks also have been among the best of major brokerage firms ("Picking the Top Stockpickers,” Feb. 13). For investment neophytes looking to assemble a portfolio of mutual funds, Schwab’s research provides worthwhile guidance.

Balance and position reports are delayed for households with less than $100,000 in their accounts, and margin fees are on the high side. The firm recently stopped charging account-maintenance fees, and improved its portfolio-reporting capability—welcome news.

Ameritrade’s Izone (http://www.izone.com), another relative newcomer, was rolled out in early 2005 and ended up supplanting the late Freetrade. It’s cheap, but there’s no phone for customer service, as Izone is designed for those who are self-directed and self-sufficient. E-mail queries usually are answered promptly, however. In return for this no-frills approach, you get low commissions for stock trades—$5 for market or limit orders. There’s no online bond-trading capability, yet you get access to Ameritrade’s order-routing technology for stocks and options. Many Ameritrade tools are available—but at extra cost.

Wall Street*E (http://www.wallstreete.com) used to be one of our favorites, but the site has seen little updating in several years. We still like the prepopulated trade tickets and real-time account information, and the changes implemented last year for entering spread orders. The firm offers three levels of service, depending on how much your hand needs to be held. There are services for Spanish-speaking customers and for non-U.S. residents.

TD Waterhouse’s (http://www.tdwaterhouse.com) site has been cleaned up considerably this last year, and includes improved research and charting tools. It doesn’t offer smart- order routing or customer-defined order routing, however, and its options-transaction fees are on the high side. Margin rates are very high. We do like the new research layout; some of it can be viewed without logging into an account. TDW lets you access your account in many different ways—online, touch-tone, wireless, or by walking into one of its offices. The site will be rolled into the new TD Ameritrade later this year as the result of a merger of the two.

Firstrade (http://www.firstrade.com) has a promotion running through the end of April that gives new account holders 2.99% margin fees for 90 days. After that, they revert to their usual rates, which are currently in the middle of the pack. As with TD Waterhouse, Firstrade’s trading technology is weak, but its fees are much lower ($6.95 market and limit orders). Another plus for cheapskates: no extra fees to buy mutual funds online, provided you hold them at least six months. You can’t trade complex options online, but its bond and CD inventory is easy to search and trade. There are Chinese-language links available as well.

Software-Based Brokers

Here are three software-based offerings, two of which are from brokers that are primarily browser-based.

Power E*Trade (http://www.poweretrade.com) is a software application, but there also is a Web component. A recent redesign gives customers a complete view of their accounts, plus access to spiffy new charting tools. We like the Prepared Orders feature, which lets you create a list of up to 25 orders, which you can execute singly or all at once. There are some strange holes in the software platform, however, such as an inability to trade complex options. As with E*Trade’s regular offering, margin fees are high, while interest payable on cash balances is low.

ScottradeELITE (http://www.scottradeelite.com) offers a great introduction to software-based trading for the relatively active trader. But to run with the big dogs, it has to have better order-routing technology and the ability to trade complex options online. It’s got low barriers to entry compared with other software-based platforms, and could work out great for the newcomer to the field.

AB Watley (http://www.abwatley.com) lets users trade stocks and simple options online through its trading platform, but everything else must go through a live broker. Commissions range from $6.95 down to $1.95 per transaction depending on your trading volume. Watley definitely caters to active traders in OTC Bulletin Board and pink sheets, including Level II quotes for pink sheets. AB Watley also lets you access your account via a browser in case you’re away from your main computer.

Pairing Up and Bulking Up

Consolidation continues to be a major theme in the online-broker industry. Terra Nova Trading was thought by industry insiders to be on the block, and they were right.

RushTrade Securities announced that it has agreed to acquire 100% of the outstanding membership interests of Terra Nova Trading, which includes Market Wise Securities and Market Wise Stock Trading School. Both Rush and Terra Nova have been marketing themselves to day traders and hedge funds. According to a press release, the combined companies will have approximately 20,000 customer accounts and over $500 million in customer-account assets. Chris Doubek, Terra Nova’s president, says the rationale for the merger is to combine RushTrade’s proprietary trading software with Terra Nova’s back-end processing and clearing operation to create an entity that owns its own technology “from soup to nuts.”

Terra Nova now licenses Townsend Analytic’s RealTick software, which Doubek admits is “a little much” for the average retail investor. Doubek says that RushTrade’s trading platform offers about 70% of RealTicks’ functionality, but will be much less expensive to offer. It will continue to offer RealTick to its high-end customers.

Doubek adds that the combined firm plans to offer “very competitive” commissions, but will avoid the low end currently occupied by Interactive Brokers and MB Trading.

Posted by twcarey on 04/10 at 09:24 AM
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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Avian Flu -- Are You Ready?

The following post is way off (what I consider the) topic for this website, but I found it interesting anyway.  What follows is a press release from Accenture, a management consulting firm (formerly Andersen Consulting). 

It’s food for thought.  I wonder how many online brokerages have implemented an avian flu continuity plan? 

Are Businesses Prepared for the Avian Flu?

The thought of a global virus like the avian flu affecting more than a quarter of the world’s population is an unpalatable, but not impossible prospect. Such a pandemic would pose a very real and unprecedented threat to lives and livelihoods.

“The impact on human life could be catastrophic, but the potential economic impact to organizations across the world also cannot be ignored,‿ said Robert Dyson, Business Continuity Practice Lead in the United States for Accenture, the global management consulting firm. “It could have a personal impact on every person in the world.  If companies cannot sustain operations then they fail which means that people are put out of work.  When people are out of work they don’t get paid which has a direct impact on the individual’s standard of living as well as the economy.  This is why our governments have this issue on their agenda and are looking for full participation from the business community.”

A report by the US National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Mapping the Global Future, identified a global pandemic as the single most important threat to the global economy.  Meanwhile, the London Chamber of Commerce reported that only one in five businesses would survive a 12-week outbreak of avian flu.

Of course, no one knows when or indeed if avian flu will transmute into a form that can be passed from human to human.  Yet, awareness of the possibility is already roiling health organizations, governments and businesses throughout the world.

Most importantly, according to Dyson, organizations must ensure that business continuity considerations are embedded in their general operations.  Its processes and activities, he said, must be considered in terms of how the organization would continue should a significant portion of the workforce become incapacitated.

“For businesses, anxiety levels should be rising fast,” said Dyson. “Companies would most likely face severe restrictions on international and possibly local travel, significant disruption to their supply chains as increased inspections disrupt logistics, and a potential general slow-down in business.  This would be particularly true for companies in the travel and hospitality sector, but it has the potential affect virtually every industry.”

Preparing for the worst

Businesses, said Dyson, need to understand the realities of a pandemic. 

“If people are too sick too work, they will still be too sick to work at home,” he said.  “In addition, school closures will force many employees to remain at home to look after children, and overwhelmed health systems will mean that many people diagnosed with the infection will have to be cared for at home, again limiting otherwise-healthy employees’ ability to work.”

Additionally, remote working will result in segregation of the workforce, convincing employees to avoid areas of mass congregation – such as an office environment – as well as situations like air travel where large groups inhabit confined spaces for long periods of time.  However, said Dyson, remote working is only part of the solution. Organizations should also consider identifying “skeleton” teams of key staff who would be the only ones to come to work in the event of a pandemic.  Primary and backup teams for key activities should be identified and organized on a split-shift, split-site basis to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.  Implementing a change freeze on all systems development will allow IT development staff to be redeployed into support positions if required.

Measures will also need to be taken within a company’s facilities, including the careful monitoring and maintenance of air conditioning, and additional antiseptic cleaning of key “at-risk” office facilities (e.g. telephones in a call center, consoles and desks in a data center operations bridge, etc.).  Even measures such as closing the site’s catering facilities and providing pre-packaged food must be considered.

Communication

Dyson and other business continuity experts believe that companies must keep employees aware of a pandemic threat, and up-to-date on developments and procedures followed. 

“The most effective way to maintain operations is to optimize the use of existing resources – particularly in the case of global companies, where scale and spread of operations can provide some protection,” said Dyson. “This includes making sure that methodology and approaches are consistent wherever the business operates, so that similar skill sets can be employed around the globe to service different clients. Work can be transferred from one location to another while maintaining consistent standards and results. 

“Clients should not notice any degradation in the service received. This approach is not just good business practice, but goes to the heart of a sustainable approach to business continuity.  The business continuity strategy must become part of the business-as-usual operating strategy.”

Many businesses - particularly in the financial sector - have already taken steps to ensure that an embedded approach to business continuity is a part of their operations. This required detailed planning to ensure that skill sets and capacities were matched, and that the impact of additional work flowing from one center to another did not critically impede the ability of resources in a new location to carry out their own work. 

Avoiding common problems

A common mistake that many companies make, said Dyson, is that they invest in continuity on a one-off, project-basis. 

“This means that continuity is assigned to a particular team of managers, who conduct a review, make recommendations and, maybe, implement plans and solutions,” he said.  “In this case, continuity fails to become part of the lifeblood of the organization and, as such, does not receive the attention and support it requires from senior management to ensure plans remain fit-for-purpose and up-to-date.”

To address the emerging threat of an avian flu pandemic, he said that organizations must first assess the ability of existing plans to cope with a significant disruption to the workforce.  Once any necessary updates have been made, an individual should be assigned to track developments with all emerging threats, and to determine any further plan updates that may be required.

“It is revealing to ask companies what they spend on business continuity,” said Dyson. “Often, the response will be that - in the absence of a specific project –little or nothing at all. However, data backup and storage, for example, are daily activities and most businesses maintain a redundant network. These are all business continuity-related activities, but are not often thought about in that way. To change this, senior management needs to move the issue of business continuity on to their permanent agenda. They must ensure that they can achieve an integrated view of all the activities and processes taking place within the business that relate to and support ‘business-as-usual’ operations in the face of unexpected and adverse events.”

A Preparation Checklist

Here is a checklist for businesses to consider in preparation of such an event.

1 – Assess specific risk. All companies are different – the environment in which they operate, their structure and their processes will determine the extent and relevance of specific risks to their business.

2 – Place a value on the disruption to particular processes and activities. How critical to business performance are the availability of particular functions, and what are the costs of downtime?

3 – Sort in terms of priority and investment in continuity the impact on high-value areas of the business.

4 – Develop business continuity strategies that make the most of existing resources and locations, and investigate how to take advantage of a global operations network.

5 – Ensure that business continuity plans assume at least a 25% reduction in available workforce, and liaise with local public bodies to identify appropriate response plans if a pandemic is announced.

6 – Deploy exercises and simulations of components within the business continuity plan to ensure such plans will actually be effective.

7 - Think the unthinkable. While operating in the hope there will be no cause to implement a business continuity plans, organizations need to make sure that should the worst happen, disruption is as brief and isolated as possible.

Source: Vicki Garfinkel, Andover Communications, 201-947-4133

Posted by twcarey on 04/06 at 10:51 AM
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