Yaacov Cohen: Do You Check Your Faith at the Door?

Faith and business can seem an awkward mix. In a world of hard-nosed competition and cold calculus, faith can seem out-of-place, almost a weakness. My personal experience has been quite different. Running a high-tech startup has helped deepen my faith, and my faith has helped me run the business better. I better understand the world in general and business in particular by studying the Torah. I can even say I understand Torah better, by bringing my business experience to its learning.

Torah and business are not two separated realities with distinct rules. When God created the world, He looked into the Torah and used it as the blueprint for creation. That’s why we better understand creation when we study its blueprint, and we learn to understand the blueprint by experiencing one of its main expressions: the business world.

Eighteen hundred years ago, the Talmudic Sage, Rava unveiled the first question a human is being asked when led in for judgment after completing his life in this world: Did you do business faithfully? This is not just the first question; it is the main question; another way to say this is did you bring your faith to your daily business life? That’s quite a surprising question for the day of Judgment. One would expect a more religious question, such as observance of Ten Commandments, about the frequency of visiting the synagogue or even about how well you supported your community. But the Talmud seems to care more about business integrity.

A following question seems more conventional: Did you fix times for Torah learning? Note that the question is not about the number of hours spent learning, but rather it is about actually setting fixed times for learning. Rava knew then what we know today; man spends most of his day dealing with mundane business. However, to achieve the level of doing business faithfully (as required by the first question), we must fix times for learning. We’ve got to take a step back from our daily business and look at life and business as opportunities to bring faith and morality to the world. How do we react when a really large deal we have been negotiating for months falls through? Will we try to analyze and learn the root cause, or look for a scapegoat?

Judaism is not a religion: A set of ceremonies that we practice at home and at the synagogue. Rather, Judaism is a way of life… perhaps it defines even life itself. Our commitment to Torah and to morality doesn’t end when we exit the synagogue, rather, that is where it starts. It is much more difficult to behave fairly and honestly when conducting business than it is to recite a prayer. Sure, prayer can be a tremendous source of inspiration, but the real test of its impact on our soul happens when we go back to our daily business.

The question we must ask ourselves on a daily basis is, “Do we bring our faith to our mundane, day-to-day business life or do we check it at the office reception door?”

This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Blogworld, in conjunction with the latter’s NMX BusinessNext Social 2013. That event will feature some of the world’s leading social-business luminaries and influencers, each of whom will be speaking at the event to provide an up-close look at how the world’s most successful businesses harness the power of social.

Live Nation Chairman Azoff resigns; Liberty buys shares

(Reuters) – Irving Azoff, a legendary music manager who helped make stars out of The Eagles and Christina Aguilera, resigned as chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and sold some of his stake in the concert promotion giant to John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp.

UPDATE 1-Live Nation Chairman Azoff resigns; Liberty buys shares

Dec 31 (Reuters) – Irving Azoff, a legendary music manager
who helped make stars out of The Eagles and Christina Aguilera,
resigned as chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and
sold some of his stake…

Tom Butta: The Truth Behind IBM’s Plans to Acquire Big Data Company, StoredIQ

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 11.09.57 AM

If you were a fan of the band, The Police, you certainly remember the haunting song that featured the lyrics, “Every breath you take, every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” That’s as good a way as any to explain why Big Data is such a big deal.

Everything everywhere is being captured, recorded, and stored. Every keystroke. Every communication. Every transaction. Every interaction. The opportunity to make sense of the data in order to take intelligent action is compelling for obvious reasons. You might gain a competitive edge if you are able to know more so you can do more sooner.

The truth is that’s a lot easier said than done. Despite the opportunity to gain insights and take intelligent action, Big Data is misunderstood. Which explains why there are so many views on what to do and what not to do.

In the middle of noise around Big Data is a clear voice with an enlightened view on what Big Data is all about. That voice is from a small, but smart software company in Austin, Texas called StoredIQ. StoredIQ packaged its views into a provocative, easy-to-read booklet called The Truth About Big Data. It is exactly what the title suggests. It’s about dispelling the myths and unraveling the mysteries about Big Data.

The booklet, and the ensuing Truth About Big Data Roadshow drew the attention of thousands of executives and hundreds of companies. One company that took particular notice was IBM, the technology juggernaut that has jumped all over the Big Data bandwagon.

IBM was pulled in by StoredIQ’s compelling take on the Big Data space, and impressed with the technological substance and knowhow behind StoredIQ’s bold voice. On December 19, IBM announced its intentions to acquire StoredIQ, and make the company an integral part of IBM’s Information Lifecycle Governance business unit.

The lessons here are clear:

  • You’re better served if you focus your energies on owning the customer problem. Customers pay attention when you have something valuable to say. People don’t like to be sold. They like to be related to. Speaking to their problems is a great way to engage.
  • Stop being part of the market noise with a sales pitch reliant solely on feature/function benefits. People don’t make decisions based on logic. They use logic to reinforce decisions instinctively made from their belly or heart.

The way to gain awareness of every step you take is to speak the customer language.

In hot, noisy, crowded market spaces, that’s a truth worth following — especially for challenger brands.

Robert Reich: Lousy Deal on the Edge of the Cliff

The deal emerging from the Senate is a lousy one. Let me count the ways:

1. Republicans haven’t conceded anything on the debt ceiling, so over the next two months — as the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default — Republicans are likely to do exactly what they did before, which is to hold their votes on raising the ceiling hostage to major cuts in programs for the poor and in Medicare and Social Security.

2. The deal makes tax cuts for the rich permanent (extending the Bush tax cuts for incomes up to $400,000 if filing singly and $450,000 if jointly) while extending refundable tax credits for the poor (child tax credit, enlarged EITC, and tuition tax credit) for only five years. There’s absolutely no justification for this asymmetry.

3. It doesn’t get nearly enough revenue from the wealthiest 2 percent — only $600 billion over the next decade, which is half of what the president called for, and a small fraction of the White House’s goal of more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction. That means more of the burden of tax hikes and spending cuts in future years will fall on the middle class and the poor.

4. It continues to exempt the first $5 million of inherited wealth from the estate tax (the exemption used to be $1 million). This is a huge gift to the heirs of the wealthy, perpetuating family dynasties of the idle rich.

Yes, the deal finally gets Republicans to accept a tax increase on the wealthy, but this is an inside-the-Beltway symbolic victory. If anyone believes this will make the GOP more amenable to future tax increases, they don’t know how rabidly extremist the GOP has become.

The deal also extends unemployment insurance for more than 2 million long-term unemployed. That’s important.

But I can’t help believe the president could have done better than this. After all, public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side. Republicans would have been blamed had no deal been achieved.

More importantly, the fiscal cliff is on the president’s side as well. If we go over it, he and the Democrats in the next Congress that starts later this week can quickly offer legislation that grants a middle-class tax cut and restores most military spending. Even rabid Republicans would be hard-pressed not to sign on.

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest is an e-book, “Beyond Outrage,” now available in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

James Berman: The Top 2 ETF’s to Buy in 2013

As a contrarian investor, I’m always looking to buy what people are selling and sell what they’re buying. It’s the only way to ensure you’re getting a reasonable price. This often leads me to forsaken corners of the investment world. I recommended a Greek stock earlier this year, for example.

For most people, ETF’s (exchange traded funds) are the best way to invest. Their low cost, transparency, diversification, tax efficiency and liquidity make them superior to individual stocks or traditional mutual funds. This prescription comes with some black box warnings: always avoid leveraged ETF’s. Also steer clear of exchange traded “notes” (ETN’s) — which depend on the solvency of the issuer or sponsor. It’s crucial to read the prospectus carefully. Finally, it’s important to buy an ETF and hold it for the long-term, selling only when its price eclipses its intrinsic value. An ETF in the hands of a trader is as dangerous as any other gambling chip.

The intrinsic value of ETF’s can be estimated by looking through to the individual holdings — or by using the valuations of quality, third-party objective research services such as Morningstar.

Based on valuation, these are the top two ETF’s I recommend for investors in 2013:

VGK — Vanguard MSCI Europe ETF

Abject fear of Europe’s debt problems continues to depress prices, leading to the best bargains on Euro stocks in decades. Top holdings include Nestle, HSBC and Novartis. There is substantial risk in this 445 stock portfolio, with 18 percent of the fund in financial services. But the 6 percent yield, average p/e ratio of 12, and meager 31 percent premium to book value compensate you for the risk (for perspective, the already cheap S&P 500 trades at a 97 percent premium to book). At these valuations, the underlying stocks have already priced in some form of Armageddon. With this ETF’s modest 14 basis point expense ratio, access to Europe doesn’t come cheaper than this. To replicate this portfolio on your own, the commissions and bid-ask spreads on these foreign stocks alone would be prohibitive.

DXJ — WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity

Japanese stocks have been a tiring story of gloomy stagnation and decline, with intermittent rays of progress. The staggering secular bear market that started in 1989 still persists, providing the harshest cautionary tale to any investor. International buyers have largely given up on Japan. As a result, however, stocks in Japan are now among the cheapest the world has ever seen. The average stock in this 271-company portfolio trades at no more than book value. Even the 1.76 percentyield is high by Japanese standards — and no longer looks paltry in a low-interest-rate world. Top holdings include Mitsubishi, Canon and Takeda Pharmaceutical. This ETF is the only major Japanese ETF that hedges its dollar-yen exposure, meaning that a US-based investor is somewhat protected from a decline in the yen. I don’t normally like currency-hedged funds because the hedging is often imperfect — and a cost to the portfolio. And typically the foreign currency is undervalued along with the stocks. But this is an unusual circumstance: I believe the yen is substantially overvalued in contrast to the underlying equities. New leadership in Japan under Shinzō Abe’s government is talking tough about reflation, a dynamic that favors stocks and disadvantages the yen.

For the long-term investor willing to buy what others have sold in droves, the VGK and the DXJ are my two top contrarian recommendations for the New Year.

The author may own the above-mentioned securities, both in client accounts and in his personal accounts. This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial adviser for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation. All investment involves risk of loss. No one should invest in any financial security without reading the full prospectus and seeking professional, personalized advice, if required.

U.S. poised to veer off fiscal cliff as House postpones budget vote

The U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t plan any votes on the federal budget Monday night, meaning that Congress for now will fail to avert US$600-billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to start at midnight.

Taxpayers and investors won’t see immediate effects of the changes, which would accumulate over a matter of months. Congress could reverse them by acting retroactively early in 2013. There are signs they may do just that.

It appears that an agreement to prevent this New Year’s tax hike is within sight, but it’s not done

Earlier Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers in Congress were “very, very close” to a deal to avert the budget changes, known as the fiscal cliff. The Kentucky Republican called on lawmakers to “pass the tax-relief portion” of a budget agreement being negotiated that would continue lower tax rates for all but the highest earners.

The only House votes scheduled for Monday are on non-budget items, according to the chamber’s schedule. House Republicans plan a private conference meeting at 5 p.m. Washington time, and Senate Republicans will meet at 4:30 p.m.

President Barack Obama said before McConnell spoke that a deal to avert tax increases and spending cuts starting tomorrow is “within sight” though it hasn’t been completed.

“It appears that an agreement to prevent this New Year’s tax hike is within sight, but it’s not done,” Obama told a group of what the White House described as middle-class taxpayers. He urged people to “keep the pressure on over the next 12 hours or so; let’s get this thing done.”

Fiscal Cliff

Lawmakers are seeking to avert tax increases and spending cuts that make up the so-called fiscal cliff. Even if a deal is reached and can get through both chambers of Congress in the coming days, it would be more limited than Obama and leaders of both parties sought. It also would set up another fight early in 2013 over the budget and the federal debt limit.

The president said the main sticking point was how to avoid the automatic federal spending cuts set to begin Tuesday. Those “may not always be the smartest cuts” and would affect defense as well as programs like Head Start, he said.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rallied 1.7% to 1,426.20 at 4 p.m. in New York. The 10-year Treasury yield increased six basis points, or 0.06 percentage point, to 1.76% at 2 p.m. in New York, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader prices.

Under a proposed deal, income tax cuts would be extended for annual income up to $450,000, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, with rates rising to 39.6 percent on income above that. Expanded unemployment insurance would be continued through 2013.

No Reid Signoff

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the floor schedule, hasn’t signed off on any potential deal, according to a Democratic aide. No deal could reach the floor without Reid’s signoff.

Some Senate Democrats expressed resistance toward an income threshold for increased tax rates that would be higher than the US$250,000 they sought.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said on the Senate floor that he doesn’t support a US$450,000 income threshold, signaling that any deal reached by Vice President Joe Biden and McConnell could lose the votes of some Democrats.

“This is one Democrat that doesn’t agree with that — at all,” Harkin said on the Senate floor. “We’re going to lock in forever the idea that US$450,000 a year is middle class in America?”

‘Extended Debate’

Harkin didn’t answer directly when asked later whether he might use Senate rules to block a deal he didn’t agree with, saying only that there could be “extended debate.”

Capital gains and dividend rates would rise to 23.8% for top earners, including taxes as part of the 2010 health-care law, according to the official.

Estate tax rates would rise to 40% on amounts above US$5-million per person. Extensions of business tax breaks would continue through the end of 2013. The measure would permanently prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax.

The Senate Finance Committee in August approved extending miscellaneous tax breaks through 2013, including benefits for wind energy, corporate research and multinationals’ overseas finance operations.

The potential deal also would avert a cut in Medicare payments to doctors through 2013.

Biden and McConnell discussed a possible two-month delay in the spending cuts, while Senate Democratic leaders had been pushing for at least a yearlong extension, according to a congressional aide close to the negotiations. A two-month pause in the automatic cuts would require US$24-billion in additional savings that Republicans are demanding in exchange.

Savings Elsewhere

Republicans insisted that the spending cuts be offset with savings elsewhere in the budget and that new revenue should be used to reduce the deficit.

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said House Speaker John Boehner has been “hands off” in the Senate negotiations. He said if a deal includes averting automatic cuts, it would need to include spending cuts in exchange for those.

“When it comes here we’ll figure out what we can pass,” Rogers told reporters. “If we don’t have real spending cuts, I don’t think it could pass the House of Representatives.”

Boehner has previously said he would bring any budget legislation passed by the Senate to the House floor, though members may decide to amend it.

Bush Tax Cuts

Tax cuts first enacted during George W. Bush’s presidency are scheduled to expire tonight. Obama and other Democrats have sought to extend the reductions for married couples’ income up to US$250,000 a year while letting tax rates rise for income above that amount. Republicans oppose tax rate increases for any income level.

Allowing the fiscal changes to take effect would cause a recession in the first half of 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In the event the Senate can’t reach a compromise, Obama has asked Reid to ready a bare-bones bill for a vote Monday to extend expanded unemployment benefits and tax cuts on family income up to US$250,000.

If Congress does nothing, taxes will rise in 2013 by an average of US$3,446 for U.S. households, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington.

Tax filing for as many as two-thirds of U.S. taxpayers could be delayed into at least late March. Defense spending would be cut, and the economy would probably enter a recession in the first half of 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Bloomberg News