Trump’s First IMTS

By Lloyd Graff

Today, a blog about America—the politics and economics—as we head toward IMTS and Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), which start on the same day in September.

Business in the machining world is thriving, though automotive is having just a little heartburn—not worthy of a Nexium, just a couple of Tums. The tariffs are barely biting yet, but the smell of them is screwing up the metals market that was smokin’ before President Trump shocked everybody by choosing to pick on aluminum and steel in order to wake up China and push a NAFTA deal through. Couldn’t he instead have chosen to penalize something like pickles and wrapping paper to make the point that America has been too nice for 25 years, and “we’re not going to take it anymore”?

Tariffs will cause a bit of a stink at IMTS 2018, but nobody, including Trump, knows if they will be a factor a year from now. The Chinese want to finesse it until Xi meets The Donald in November, and a new leader in Mexico may want to get off to an upbeat start in his tenure by negotiating a NAFTA compromise. With midterm elections in November and a bitter Supreme Court fight coming Trump could use a victory lap on his tariff gambit.

A word about the Brett Kavanaugh pick for the High Court. I don’t think the President truly cares if Kavanaugh is confirmed by the midterms. Trump paid his dues this time to the anti-abortion team by picking a strong Catholic with a Jesuit school education. His Gorsuch pick was the crucial one for him so he chose a pleasant, get-along, political guy who could smile his way through the Senate confirmation. Kavanaugh is another shrewd charmer, but the Democrats are totally dug in against him, and I doubt Republican Senators Collins of Maine and Murkowski of Alaska will vote for him even if he has soap in his mouth when questioned on his published opinions reflecting his views on Roe vs. Wade. If they vote against confirmation and Senator McCain abstains or votes against Trump’s pick, Kavanaugh is toast. This would allow Trump to pick somebody like Gorsuch who cannot be as easily categorized as Kavanaugh. I am making the assumption that the Republicans will hold the Senate in November. It is quite possible the Dems take back the House, however, from what I read.

The Democrats have a ton of money pouring into the House races, and a lot of old Republicans have walked away. The Dems have an enthusiasm edge and probably can overcome the gerrymandered districts they face.  It’s what we call democracy.

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Getting back to business, the country and Trump have been lucky and smart in his first two years. The economy had some momentum eight years after the deep recession had devastated the country. President Obama fortunately was such an ineffective leader during his second term that he could only slow the economy down, not derail it.

Trump has been so quixotic and disinterested in Congress that he was unable throw out Obama Care. By losing the fight and being shrewdly disinterested in health care politics he was able to focus on getting a giant tax cut passed, with big positives for business. To the Democrats’ dismay the economy has roared since its passage. The economy has stunned the growth doubters by showing 3.9% unemployment and 4% growth last quarter. These are numbers many folks on the Left and Right thought we would never see again. Reducing government regulation and pooh-poohing the climate change fanatics without much push-back from the real people in both parties has shown mainstream politicians that environmental causes have little national traction, while economic well-being does.

Low unemployment makes strange bedfellows. The Dems portray Trump as a racist, yet Black unemployment, even in the worst areas, is shrinking. People getting out of jail can actually find jobs. The real minimum wage is rising rapidly even without legislation because companies will pay up if they need workers. Home sales growth is slowing in some areas because fewer folks are moving to find work, though the prices of existing homes are still being pushed up because family formation is finally rising again. Money is pouring into the United States with the repatriation of corporate profits that have been stuck overseas by repressive American taxation. The Fed is trying to push up interest rates, but the 10-year bond which dictates home mortgages continues to resist 3% because the world wants to buy the U.S. 10-year.

Most people think Trump is a scoundrel, personally. I think the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt even though it is demonstrating quite vividly that politics is a very dirty business with a lot of scummy folks. Is that news? If Mueller could nail Trump we probably would already know it.

Personally, I think Trump’s immigration policy is deplorable and bad politics. It appears that Attorney General Sessions is a nut on the topic of keeping America as much like his image of his idyllic Alabama as possible. I wonder if the Administration’s goofy anti-foreigner stance is an effort by Trump to keep Sessions on the reservation. A President always wants to keep the Attorney General on his team.

You probably disagree with some of these opinions. I’d love to read your comments and hope to see you in Chicago for IMTS. It’s going to be a lively one!

Question: Has Trump hurt you or helped you economically?

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Swarfcast Ep. 6 – The Mind of an Auctioneer with Robert Levy

By Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast interview with Robert Levy.

In today’s podcast we interviewed Robert Levy, longtime industrial auctioneer and owner of Robert Levy Associates, a firm that consults with companies looking to monetize their industrial assets.

Robert joined his family auction business, Norman Levy Associates, in 1980 but only had the opportunity to work with his father for three years. He and his brother continued to grow the company until finally selling it to DoveBid (now GoIndustry DoveBid) in 2000 for $30 million. He stayed on the board of directors at DoveBid but then parted ways four years later, dissatisfied with the direction of the company, which many unhappy former Norman Levy Associates employees had already quit.

At the end of the interview Robert said, “I’ve been in the business 40 years and I’ve been in three companies, and I would still like to be in the one I was at originally.” It was an interesting comment, but my bet is that Robert doesn’t regret his life’s journey from stand to stand.

Robert Levy of Robert Levy Associates, Inc.

Sometimes you have to burn down the old to grow and thrive, and if nothing else just survive. Sometimes the clear choice is to sell out to a competitor or private equity firm. Or, you hire someone like Robert to help liquidate your assets that are not giving you what you need anymore. Then go build something new and great.

You still get to keep your fond memories of the past.

Question: Does bidding in an auction excite you or make you crazy?

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So You Want to Buy a House?

By Lloyd Graff

I heard a National Public Radio piece recently on the shortage of homes on the market. The reporter, Ben Marcus, was reporting from Denver on his local market, which is seeing prices skyrocket. He focused on the rehab boom. Rehabs on bathrooms, kitchens and basements, along with home additions are going nuts in the Mile-High City. The parallel phenomenon is that very few new or used homes are coming on the market despite ferocious demand. A partial explanation Marcus honed in on was the large number of homes bought during the recession which were converted to rentals. The fat and happy owners are now unwilling to sell units because they are making such a sweet return renting them out. If they sold them they would owe capital gains taxes and be faced with a difficult task of replacing their rising investment with a comparable or better one.

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I look over my own front yard and see several lovely suburban homes that my neighbors can’t give away. I see well-manicured single-family dwellings mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s—some ranch style, some two story—on 12,000 to 20,000-square-foot lots.

Kitchen renovation

The area is quiet, well policed and modestly taxed by Chicago (Cook County) standards. Average family income is over $100,000. So why is this a housing desert? The easy answer, and everyone knows it, is RACE. The neighborhood is 70% African American and 30% White with a smattering of Asians, Latinos and maybe a stray Inuit or Apache.

In my day job, I am a used machinery dealer who spends his days assessing the values of machine tools, looking for mispriced lathes and mills.

I’m also a huge baseball fan and I love to analyze Major League Baseball trades, looking for the next Justin Verlander deal that locks up a pennant for Houston while leaving Detroit with three very young prospects, a jockstrap and a pair of used socks.

If a house sells for $800,000 in a fairly White suburb 28 miles north or west of downtown Chicago but sells for $200,000 next door to me in the south, when if ever, will the price disparity begin to narrow?

I am an “expert,” I think, in pricing anomalies, but this emotional one defies my reasoning. I do not know the algorithm of race. I have spent many years trying to nail it down in an analytical way, but I cannot get my arms around it.

What I observe in my area is that the older White people are dying or moving to sterile institutions that cater to their needs. The wealthiest ones are moving to downtown Chicago, Florida or Arizona, or where their kids live if they like one another.

Some African Americans from Chicago or other cities do buy into my neighborhood, but lenders may not see the area as particularly attractive for appreciation. Young Whites seemingly are afraid to be pioneers. So, the enormous price differential continues, even in good economic times despite rising home prices all over.

Racial fear, animosity, naiveté and stereotyping are all at play, yet racial intermarriage is on the rise and Barack Obama was a two term President not long ago.

Things are “a changing”? Well, maybe. But when the spread narrows $100,000 between my home and a comparable one in the the North or West Chicago suburbs I will begin to believe it’s happening

Question: Is it stupid to buy a home?

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Swarfcast Ep. 5 – Esben Østergaard of Universal Robots

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

Scroll down below the blog to listen to the podcast interview with Esben Østergaard.

Today’s Swarfcast is an interview Noah and I recently conducted with Esben Østergaard, founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots, a Danish firm that sold out in 2015 to automation conglomerate Teradyne for $285 million.

Esben started the company on a shoestring with his partners in 2005. They struggled to build a viable prototype and then luckily found an investor who believed in their idea of a compact, inexpensive robot that was easily programmed by factory floor workers. The robot was intended to be used as a tool for a person, or “cobot.” It was not intended to be used as stand-alone automation like traditional robots developed for giant automotive plants, doing work around the clock on the same job year after year.

Esben got into robots as a child, developing his first crude robot to solve a problem for his father who was working as an engineer building the water system in Seibu City in the Philippines. At the time, his father’s staff was using dogs and piglets to carry cables through the pipes, but the animals proved unreliable and ornery. Esben developed a battery powered robot made from Legos to pull the cables though, which beat chasing dogs around the project.

In the senior year of his Masters Degree studies, Esben and a team of other students developed a robot soccer team which ultimately won a World Championship in the event. Later he studied and worked in Los Angeles and Japan, but eventually returned to the University of Southern Denmark for graduate work and a teaching position.

His passion was to start a company to bring about his vision of a low cost but exceptional robotic arm that would aid people on the factory floor, rather than replace them.

In 2008, with the company starving for the cash needed to develop the distribution and sales to reach the 25 units per month break even point, they found an investor.

Esben Østergaard of Universal Robots

Esben is delighted by the creative ways people are using his cobots, which most people can learn to program in a free 88-minute online course. Universal Robots are giving massages, being used in hospitals for rehab, and landing airplanes as co-pilots. They have even found their way into movies as villains. “You don’t even have to dress them up,” Esben says.

We asked him if he felt that robots would ultimately replace many people in the work force. He said that many companies who have bought Universal Robots actually end up hiring more people because their businesses grow.

Esben said that he sees the definition of “work” constantly evolving. He said that if a person from a hundred years ago saw a modern office she would not be able to identify a single person working. History has shown that people are driven to work, but they must keep adapting and constantly reeducating themselves as technology advances.

Question: Are you afraid a robot will take your job?

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Swarfcast Ep. 4 – Our Family Treasure Hunting Business

By Noah Graff

Listen to the podcast with the player below.

In today’s podcast Lloyd Graff and his son Noah delve into their family used machine tool biz… er treasure hunting business. They discuss how Noah came to work at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert, what it’s like working together and basic alchemy.

Question: Would you like being in business with a family member?

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Junk or Treasure?

By Lloyd Graff

David Killen is an art dealer in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. He is also a treasure hunter of the modern variety, a profession a humble used machinery dealer like myself connects with.

David is the kind of guy who frequents flea markets and auctions, not just because he needs inventory for his own bi-monthly auctions of prints and Tchotchkes, but because he loves the hunt. He’s 59 now and has been schlepping around art fairs and Swap-O-Ramas for 50 years. He thought that one day he might find an overlooked stash of value. It looks like he finally did.

Late last year at an estate sale in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, Killen bought the contents of a locker in a warehouse. The property had been owned by Susanne Schnitzer, who was the partner of Orrin Riley, a prominent art restorer who had restored several paintings by the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning. Riley died in 1986, and Schnitzer was run over by a garbage truck in New York City in 2009.

Schnitzer’s friends from New Jersey were her executors and they ultimately tired of paying the warehouse fees on the odds and ends in the locker. They had an auction house peruse the contents before they sold it, and it was pronounced “junk.” A bunch of prints of little value.

Killen lives for times like this. The rules of the game in situations of this nature are that the bidders get a glimpse of the contents but cannot analyze the goods in depth.

It’s a lot like bidding on a warehouse crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of 50 years of screw machining.  ACMEs, Davenports and New Britains caked with chips, clotted oil and crud, chip conveyors and stock reels askew, making for an obstacle course tougher than an an American Ninja Warrior challenge. I’ve seen men fall into the base of 8-spindle ACMEs, never to be heard from again.

Untitled XXXI, Willem de Kooning, Painted 1977. $21,165,000 at Auction.

David Killen knew the locker’s contents had the “junk” judgement by the fancy auction house, but he also knew the history of Orrin Riley being a confidante of de Kooning back in the 1970s when nobody knew his name. A guy like Killen develops a nose for value over 50 years. Did he have special inside knowledge about the locker? No. I can say this confidently because he hauled the contents out last December in his own truck and didn’t even check everything out immediately. It was just another collection of dusty goodies that he would auction off in his sweet time.

But then he saw the wooden boxes that said de Kooning printed on the outside. Maybe these weren’t prints. He had suspected there could be some gold in the locker when he bought it, or he would not have paid $15,000. He knew the background of Orrin Riley, who had done restoration work on de Kooning and begun the restoration department for the Guggenheim Museum. Riley was “big time.” David Killen’s nose for treasure smelled something sweet.

Last week Killen made an announcement to the press that he owned six authentic, but unsigned de Kooning paintings. They were authenticated by Lawrence Castagna, an art restoration authority who had worked both for Riley and as a studio assistant for de Kooning. Castagna feels confident that six of the paintings are the real thing. Willim de Kooning died in 1997, and his foundation in Manhattan does not authenticate works by the artist.

Killen also found a painting by Paul Klee, the famous Swiss painter.

The most recent comps on the seven original works of art, though the de Koonings are unsigned, would indicate a value of around $100 million for the group. What a haul for a struggling art dealer who deals mostly in nice prints.

As a lifelong treasure hunter who has never found a de Kooning myself, I love this story. I am not jealous of David Killen. I am thrilled for him.

His story is about the chase, not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I could have done a lot of other things in my career, but the machinery treasure hunt and all of the fascinating folks I’ve met along the way has kept me passionately in the game. I love it as much as ever, probably more, because I am acutely aware of the time limits we all have.

I really hope the de Koonings are the real thing, but honestly, I don’t think it will change David Killen much either way. At least I hope not.

Question: Have you ever discovered hidden treasure?

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Swarfcast Ep. 3 – Part 2 of Miles Free Interview

By Noah Graff

Miles Free, Director of Research and Technology at the Precision Machined Products Association, opines on electric cars, economic patriotism and how American machine shops have evolved to thrive in today’s economy.

Question: Are tariffs aimed at China economic patriotism or a tool for the enemy?

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.

Honda Assembly Plant in Liberty OH   (Dayton Daily News)

 

 

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Machinery Marriage

I often ask clients of our machine tool business where they make the most money in their businesses. They usually have an answer immediately, and it isn’t in the place where they are investing fresh money.

I’m frequently talking to folks who run multi-spindle automatic screw machines, usually cam-operated, in tandem with a host of other equipment. Many people regard these machines as antiques from the antediluvian epoch of manufacturing. These are machines that some folks say won World War II. For the uninitiated, that was the war in which we fought the Germans and Japanese, while the Russians were our allies. The world does have the ability to change.

The ironic answer I often get is that the multi-spindles make the most money, and the return on investment is off the charts because they were written off eons ago.

But the secret sauce is the knowledge of where they fit in the picture. Banging out a half million dumb parts on old Acmes or New Britains is a losing game. Increasingly, sharp manufacturers in Shanghai or Bangalore will make you bang your brains out. Subsidized steel in China and dirt priced brass in India make the simple threaded widget yesterday’s game. But, combining the raw machining strength of 6- or 8-spindle multis with the

finesse of twin-turret, twin-spindle CNC turning centers can turn 20 cent blanks into $2 medical or aircraft pieces. Running single bars through an Okuma or Nakamura will make you a bit player in a crowded cast, but combining those machines with the muscular multis that still can pull their not-so-insignificant weight, makes a potent combination that Shanghai and Bangalore can’t beat.

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President Trump’s tariffs are an annoyance which could grow into a blister if they do not bring any fundamental shifts from the Chinese. American manufacturers, particularly steel users, are today’s sacrificial lambs as the Administration vaguely pushes for China to stop stealing intellectual property. The naïveté of somehow expecting Beijing to allow one of its biggest employers, the inefficient State-run steel industry, to suddenly erode because of the tingling jab of American tariffs is quite surprising. I fret that the strong U.S. economy has made an overconfident Trump start a fight without a clear endgame.

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My son Noah is getting married next month and already receiving some gifts. It brought to mind a few memorable gifts my wife Risa and I received for our wedding that have lasted over the decades we have been together.

We still use our copper bottomed Revere Ware skillets and sauce pans almost every day. Amazingly, 48 years later, they are better than when we got them from Shirley Silverstein as a gift, because they have been seasoned. We seldom shine the copper bottoms, however.

We still have aluminum baking pans, perfect for brownies and cakes, which have remained as wonderful as they were when we received them more than four decades ago. Then there is the cookie recipe book that Risa refers to often and the old Better Homes and Gardens recipe book that never seems to age.

The ideal present does not have to last for 40 or 50 years. Luggage can be used hard for 5 or 10 years and happily discarded, and a sweater that you wear often has a finite life. My wife and I have our own good china, but she usually uses her mother’s china for Sabbath meals and special occasions.

We have several weddings coming up besides Noah’s. The Amazon gift certificate is an appealing surrogate for the special wedding gift that will be remembered fondly 50 years from today. Gifts also go out of vogue. Silver serving bowls seem like such an anachronism today. Who has the space for them to sit idly on shelves?

With wedding season at its peak, I am curious to know who has gifts that have withstood the test of time. Who has a great idea for a gift that will keep on giving or impart a memory which will last forever?

Question: Is running multi-spindles a losing game?

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Swarfcast Ep. 2 – Talking Tariffs with Miles Free

By Noah Graff

Listen to Swarfcast in the player below.

In Episode #2 of Swarfcast, Today’s Machining World’s podcast, Noah interviewed Miles Free of the PMPA (Precision Machined Products Association). Free is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the steel trade. They discussed how the recently implemented tariffs on raw materials into the United States affect the U.S. precision machining industry.

In the interview Free equated harsh raw material tariffs to economic sanctions on imports that the United States would inflict on an enemy like Russia or Iran.

If you want to learn about Trump’s new tariffs listen to this interview!

This interview was conducted in April, so at times Free will refer to tariffs as a potential threat rather than a current one.

Question: How are tariffs affecting your business?

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Pull the Goalie

By Lloyd Graff

Malcolm Gladwell recently put out a brilliant episode in his “Revisionist History” podcast series about his Number One rule for living — “Pull the Goalie.” (Click here to listen)

Gladwell interviews two of his buddies, Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown, successful Wall Street money strategists. They analyze everything. It’s what they do for a living and just for the heck of it. They test their offbeat theories with mathematical precision, looking for the absurd that carries the germ of truth. They love being “disagreeable,” espousing truth that defies the conventional wisdom and makes “normal” folks feel extremely uncomfortable.

They recently published a paper in which they argued that the hockey strategy of pulling the goalie to add an extra attacker when down by one goal with only one minute left on the clock was stupid. They argue that the goalie should be pulled with 5 minutes and 40 seconds left if a team needs to tie the score and force overtime. If the leading team scores on the unguarded net, so what, you would have almost surely lost anyway with the time worn strategy of pulling the goalie with only a minute left. If you end up losing the game by two or three goals instead of one, who cares. At least you gave yourself the best possibility of winning. They claim their calculations prove the “pull the goalie” strategy handily.

It makes exquisite sense if you think about it—in hockey and in life. The conservative “follow the conventional rule” approach is a recipe for failure and mediocrity. Innovative intelligent risk pays.

Courtesy of www.theglobeandmail.com

In sports, we see numerous examples of conventional wisdom being overturned today. The move to 3-point shooting, in some cases more than 50% of the time, has changed the NBA game radically. It is not uncommon to start a fast break and then pitch the ball to the corner for an open 24-footer, rather than rush to a contested goal near the basket.

In baseball the starting pitcher is now expected to go a maximum of six innings because “stuff” often starts to fade as the hurler reaches 100 pitches. Also, Major League hitters slug significantly better against pitchers they have already seen twice in a game.

In football the Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated that going for it on 4th down is often a better strategy than punting or attempting a long field goal.

But aside from sports, the “pull the goalie” approach is useful in business. I think people are too fearful about changing jobs and careers, and bosses are too careful about firing people. The comfortable path is to stick with the same company, the same team, the predictable career path, the boss you know. But if you think pulling the goalie is your rule for life, then making a shift before the conventional wisdom or your buddies tell you to do it might well be the right course.

Malcolm Gladwell uses another “pull the goalie” example in the podcast by bringing up horror film plots where a mother and two young children fall victim to a home invasion by a psychopath. When it becomes obvious to the Mom that she can’t protect her family from the intruder and her only chance at saving them is to flee the scene to go get help, what should she do?

Society as well as natural parental instinct would say that a mother should NEVER leave her kids when a predator is in the house.

But theoretically she should “pull the goalie,” do the unthinkable, the thing for which she might second guess herself forever. Otherwise, everybody dies instead of trying that one last chance to save the day.

The life lesson is to consider the odds, accept being uncomfortable, ignore the ostracism of your peers. Doing what’s easy, going with the crowd, might get you killed.

Question: When would you pull the goalie?

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