Friday, July 30, 2010

Plantronics Annual Shareholder Meeting (2010)

Plantronics (PLT) held its 2010 annual shareholder meeting on July 27, 2010. About ten shareholders were treated to tea, Peet's coffee, and bottled water. When entering Plantronics' headquarters, you will see a small (about 50 yards) museum on your right-hand side. This museum chronicles Plantronics' accomplishments since 1960, including its work with NASA and the Apollo shuttle launches. One of the most interesting museum pieces is an autographed picture from Buzz Aldrin to Plantronics' salesperson Steve Spragens. This space-age theme seems to heavily influence Plantronics ambiance--its building sections have names like Apollo, Cosmos, and Quasar.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Plantronics, other than the mini-museum, was the pleasant vibe. The employees seemed happy and productive, and Investor Relations personnel made me feel very welcome. I was surprised, because the previous day, when the company reported what seemed like good earnings, Wall Street still punished the stock by 10%. (Note: over the past two years, PLT stock has soundly beat the S&P 500.)

Plantronics' CEO Kenneth Kannappan delivered most of the formal and informal presentation using a slideshow. Plantronics seeks to deliver unified communications ("UC") to corporations, positioning itself as the primary communications integrator for a company. The goal of UC is to integrate a company's voice, data, and video-based communications systems. Although Plantronics creates the majority of its software internally, Plantronics works with Cisco (CSCO), Microsoft (MSFT), and IBM (IBM) to implement UC programs (10K, page 3).

CEO Kannappan said he wanted to make communicating "simple and enticing" so that the return on investing in Plantronics' products would be justified. He also discussed Plantronics' focus on improving the "fidelity of the conversation."

Speaking of improving conversations, Plantronics owns Clarity, which makes phones and devices for the hearing impaired. I happen to be hearing impaired, and I use a Plantronics' Ameriphone XL-50 telephone. It is a big, clunky device, but it has served me well for the past decade. Without it, I'm not sure I'd be able to run my own business as a solo practitioner. The Clarity division doesn't significantly add to Plantronics' bottom line, but it still helps--in the first quarter of fiscal 2010, Clarity contributed $4.1 million to Plantronics' overall $141.2 million. More recently, in 1Q fiscal 2011, Clarity revenue was $5.1 million out of a total corporate revenue of $170.7 million.

Perhaps Clarity isn't doing as well as it should. As Americans get older, more and more them are losing their hearing, so it's surprising not to see a larger demand for Clarity products. I believe the low sales comes from a lack of attention and marketing of the Clarity brand. For example, when I was writing this post, I tried to log on to Clarity's website to view more products. The website was down. Earlier, when I had a chance to view an ad for the Clarity amplified C4220 telephone on Clarity's own website, the word "intelligent"--a word most elementary schoolchildren can write--was mis-spelled. (Note: I bought the C4200 and hope to use it soon. It is apparently a significant upgrade over the much older XL-50.)

Also, how many people would be happier with a higher maximum volume of their cell phones? I own a Palm Pre Plus (HPQ), and although I am happy with it overall, I rarely use it to talk, because its amplification isn't very high. When I was shopping for cell phones, I assumed I had no options for a good conversation and focused on comparing text messaging features. It turns out that Plantronics offers a cell phone--the ClarityLife C900--for senior citizens (a code word generally used in corporate-speak to refer to people who are hearing and/or visually impaired). It would have been nice to be able to walk into a store and try the C900 before buying a smartphone.

Anyway, I'm not surprised at the lack of attention given to hearing impaired professionals--society is used to children and senior citizens being hearing impaired, but not anyone in between. How else can we explain why the recent House bill (HR 1646) on a hearing aid tax credit only covers children and senior citizens? Boo to Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI). My family had to spend thousands of dollars for hearing aids when I was growing up with no government support. Now that a bill might be passed to help ease the burden of spending 3,500 to 10,000 dollars on hearing aids, the House wants to exclude hearing impaired adult professionals like me?

(Kudos to Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-IA) for sponsoring S. 1019, which covers all age groups. It's hard not to love Iowans--the state has a low unemployment rate, moderate politics, and basketball star Ali Farokhmanesh.)

Anyway, back to the meeting. The Q&A session was brief. Another shareholder asked, "Are you hiring?" CEO Kannappan said the company was hiring in UC, firmware/software, software support, tech support, and field sales agents, and the increase in hiring would be "gradual."

I asked about Plantronics' decision to shut down and sell a 200,000+ square foot building in Suzhou, China. Plantronics had decided to move its Bluetooth headset manufacturing operations from Suzhou to Weifang, China. (See 10K, page 14.) CEO Kannappan said the new supplier in Weifang, China is in a better position to offer Plantronics "cost-savings."

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of Plantronics (PLT) shares.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Criminals, by the Numbers

The American justice system, by the numbers:

1.7 million criminals behind bars.
4.3 million people on probation.
700,000 people on parole.

From Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2010, page 74, citing, American Interest, March/April 2010.

Bonus: "California's prison guards have become the state's largest personnel expense, creating a situation in which the government's cost to house each prisoner is an astounding $45,000 per year." More HERE and HERE.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Goldman Sachs' Report on Immigration

In 2008, Goldman Sachs issued an excellent report on immigration and the American economy. You can read the report HERE. The paragraph below is probably one of the most interesting parts of the report:

Immigration is probably a small net positive for the federal budget, because incremental tax revenues outweigh the limited services allowed to immigrants. States and localities often pick up the slack in providing social services to immigrants, and therefore incur considerable costs, particularly in states with a large share of unauthorized migrants.

The costs immigrants pose to the federal budget are probably relatively low. The welfare reform passed in 1996 stipulated that states could not use federal grants to finance benefits such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Medicaid, etc. to non-citizens, though they could still offer such assistance with their own funds. However, the American-born children of immigrants (whether authorized or not) are citizens and thus entitled to benefits.

At the same time, immigrants do provide tax revenues to the Treasury. Even illegal immigrants pay federal taxes: in order to demonstrate eligibility for employment, undocumented workers often use fake Social Security cards with numbers “borrowed” from others or simply made up. When federal payroll taxes and income taxes are withheld from their paychecks, funds accumulate in the Social Security trust funds with no parallel entitlement. Since the Immigration Reform & Control Act went into effect during the late 1980s, inflows into the ‘Earnings Suspense File’ have increased dramatically (Exhibit 8). The cumulative taxes held in this account are $463 billion...

The situation at the state and local levels is very different. According to a ruling of the Supreme Court, these jurisdictions cannot withhold public education and emergency medical services from either legal or illegal immigrants residing in the United States (Hanson, p. 13). As states generally foot the bill for these services, outlays for immigrants likely outweigh the corresponding tax revenues.

Like I said, very interesting stuff. Overall, it sounds like Goldman Sachs is saying that the federal government receives benefits from illegal immigration while states and local governments do not.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Political Polarization

From Chris Hedges’ book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

What counts today isn’t engaging the other side with reasoned arguments; it’s building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience’s collective sense of outrage and victimization. And that’s a job best performed not by serious thinkers but by hacks and hucksters. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Joseph Farah, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin: they adorn the cathedral of conservatism like so many gargoyles.

Hat tip to Not a Potted Plant.

Bonus, from same author and book:

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, however, turned into donkeys -- a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity.

I find myself both awed and saddened by Hedges' summary of American public discussion.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On Family

I had a conversation recently with a friend who discussed the difficulties of child-rearing. Then I read this:

The truth is that, with the birth of the first child, marvelous changes take place. From that moment on, mama is no longer the center of attention; the baby is. Mama and papa will give—-and willingly-—and the baby will take. They will assume responsibility, earn money, employ their energy, change their lives, if necessary—-all for the baby. This is no light undertaking, but the business of life is starting now, and every day of mama's life proves it to be so. And here her struggle starts. She wants to give everything to the baby; she wants equally to hold on to herself, her intelligence and uniqueness, while the baby constantly tries her patience, her strength, her nerves, and roots out of her the deepest emotions she has ever known in her life. This is a whole new process, and not one that provides built-in security.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Fascinating Atlantic article from 1961 HERE.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

In 2010, the immigration debate seems to be reaching a fever pitch. It's important to note that the same racially-charged arguments against immigration have been made before. In short, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Guess the year Economist W. Jett Lauck made the following statement:

"our industrial system has become saturated with an alien unskilled labor force of low standards, which so far has been impossible to assimilate industrially, socially, or politically, and which has broken down American standards of work and compensation."

From Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2010, page 20; originally from "The Lesson from Lawrence," published in 1912. Mr. Lauck was apparently referring to Italians, Slovaks, Magyars, and Croatians. I wonder what Justices Scalia and Alito think about the Arizona anti-illegal-immigration law.

Friday, July 23, 2010

EMC and Brocade

Update on 9/2/10: this was posted on July 23, 2010, when BRCD was around 5.03. BRCD declined even further over the next few weeks, dropping to around 4.70. On September 2, 2010, BRCD went as high as 5.64. I get concerned when a stock pops over 20% in less than a month, and with my "two in the hand is better than one in the bush" mentality, I reduced my positions substantially. BRCD is no longer my largest holding, and I no longer have an opinion about the direction of its stock price. However, I continue to think a "horizontal acquisition" (when a competitor buys out its competition) would be ideal for EMC and BRCD. Original post is below.

Update on 9/7/10: today, I sold all but one of my BRCD shares. Will I regret my decision? Perhaps. But as I said earlier, I am risk-averse, especially after seeing a stock move higher so quickly.

More here, in case anyone is interested. Check out the comments section within the link.


I've got a superstitious side. I sometimes get gut feelings based on no evidence or new information, and yet, my logical side fails to ignore these feelings. I know this: I am no prognosticator. You should not rely on my subjective opinions. For some strange reason, I just got a gut feeling that EMC may be buying out Brocade (BRCD). I used to think IBM would buy out Brocade, but now EMC seems a more viable suitor. No logic is involved, just a sudden gut feeling. As of today, Brocade is trading around 5.03/share.

Mind you, I have no idea if or when Brocade will be bought out, but it seems clear that BRCD is too small to compete against IBM, HP, or Cisco. Yet, despite all odds, Brocade continues to offer excellent technology and human capital. As such, once Brocade's earnings get back on track, it will be an attractive takeover target. It seems to me that a smart suitor will buy a beaten-down company right before it starts doing well, not after. Once Brocade performs well, its stock price will increase significantly, making a buyout more expensive. Right now, though, if EMC were to offer Brocade $7.00/sh, I would be very pleased.

Disclosures: I own Brocade (BRCD) shares. As of July 23, 2010, Brocade is my largest individual stock holding. However, my holdings may change in the future.

Update: conventional wisdom indicates a buy-out won't happen any time soon. Oracle's Ellison has indicated he isn't interested in Brocade, and HPQ/Dell seem to be moving towards more software-based companies. Also, EMC has publicly stated it is looking at sub-billion dollar purchases, so perhaps BRCD is too expensive for EMC. Even so, I continue to believe that Brocade will be bought out at some point.

The information on this site is provided for discussion purposes only. Under no circumstances do any statements here represent a recommendation to buy or sell securities or make any kind of an investment. You are responsible for your own due diligence. To summarize, I do not provide investment advice, nor do I make any claims or promises that any information here will lead to a profit, loss, or any other result. Unless specifically stated otherwise, no portion of this blog is commercial in nature in any fashion, nor operated for profit. All copyrighted material reproduced herein appears under a claim of fair use. Nothing herein constitutes legal advice, in any state; those seeking legal advice should consult with an attorney licensed to practice law in the appropriate jurisdiction. No guarantee made of updates at any rate of frequency or periodicity. All statements of fact in this blog are derived from sources reasonably and in good faith believed to be true and accurate. Author not responsible for any harm arising from following anything construed as advice herein.

Movie Recommendation

I highly recommend the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Very funny and appropriate for all ages. It is perhaps Sidney Poitier's best film.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Being Self-Employed

Carrie Belt explains what it's like to be self-employed and trying to save for retirement:

We can't file for unemployment income when work is scarce. There's no severance plan when clients zip shut their pocket-books. While I continue to contribute to my retirement savings when I can, my financial focus is simply staying out of debt. For retirement, I'm on my own. I've never had a plan through another employer. I'm OK with that independence, but I'd love for someone else to pay for my coffee breaks, sick days and health care expenses.

Amen, sister.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Derivatives Trading: a Dangerous Game

[Note: this post has been updated since its original publication.]

HERE is one of the best-written articles on the 2008-2009 financial crisis [Washington Lawyer, June 2010]. The numbers in Anna Persky's article are breathtaking, and not in a good way. I've added some other numbers, including two interesting numbers from a recent Economist issue.

300 trillion. The CFTC's Chairman "[Gary] Gensler has estimated that the [2010] OTC derivatives market is worth $300 trillion." If you think that's a large number, brace yourself: according to The Summer 2010 edition of The Hedgehog Review, The Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland estimated that at the end of 2007, the market for unregulated derivatives was $1 quadrillion.

54.5 trillion. The net worth of U.S. households on or around August 2010 was approximately $54.5 trillion, according to "The Globalist Quiz" (re-published by the San Jose Mercury News on August 8, 2010).

47 trillion. According to a July issue of The Economist, the total value of stock trades executed on the American stock market in 2009 was $47 trillion. American stock markets were "the world’s most active, with shares worth nearly $47 trillion, thrice the market capitalisation, changing hands during the year."

45 trillion. "The market size for credit default swaps increased rapidly—-by 2007 the market had a notional value of $45 trillion, about twice the size of the U.S. stock market."

15.1 trillion. According to a July issue of The Economist, the total market capitalization of the American stock market at the end of 2009 was $15.1 trillion. Also, people traded American-listed stocks so many times in 2009, by the end of the year, the value of their stock trades totaled three times the value of the entire stock market. (See 47 trillion number, above.) And yes, in 2007, just the market for credit default swaps was three times the value of the entire stock market at the close of 2009. Shadow banking, indeed.]

14.2 trillion. According to "The Globalist Quiz," re-published by the San Jose Mercury News on August 8, 2010, the U.S. GDP--the amount of the goods and services produced by all Americans in a given year--stands at around $14.2 trillion.

13.2 trillion. According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, as of July 2010, our national debt was approximately $13.2 trillion.

9 trillion. According to Niall Ferguson's book, The Ascent of Money, "Between 1997 and 2006, US consumers withdrew an estimated $9 trillion in cash from the equity in their homes. By the first quarter of 2006 home equity extraction accounted for nearly 10 per cent of disposable personal income." (page 267, paperback)

1 trillion. At the end of fiscal 2008, states had a $1 trillion funding shortfall in public sector retirement benefits. From the Pew Center: "There was a $1 trillion gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees' retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises."

992 billion. From ABA Journal, page 59, March 2010: "[R]evolving credit grew from $48 billion in 1978 to $131 billion in 1985 and reach[ed] a high of $992 billion at the end of 2008."

434 billion. "Between 2004 and 2006, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, government-chartered mortgage finance firms, purchased $434 billion in securities backed by subprime loans."

On Complexity: “The beauty and the danger of derivatives is that you can create almost anything, and the degree of complexity that is available is almost limitless,” says Robert A. Wittie, a partner specializing in securities finance and investment management at K&L Gates. “Used properly, that can be terrific. But it can become very opaque. It can be hard for investors to understand the assets they are buying.”

Passing the Buck: “When you tell someone that they can sell a hand grenade with the pin out, but they don’t need to worry about it because someone else will own it when it goes off,” [Attorney Philip] Johnson says, “you get a lot more hand grenades with the pin out being sold.” [I've talked about this attenuation problem in detail HERE.]

Canaries in the Coal Mine?: Orange County went bankrupt in 1994 after its treasurer "invested the funds in a leveraged portfolio of mostly interest-sensitive derivatives contracts." Then came Barings Bank in 1995 and LTCM in 1998. The LTCM disaster required a 3.6 billion dollars bailout, which now looks like a paltry sum. In 2001, Enron declared bankruptcy in part due to its derivative trading.

The Fed Asleep at the Wheel?: In 2008, Alan Greenspan emphasized that, excluding credit default swaps, the “derivatives markets are working well.” [Earlier, in 2003, Warren Buffett called financial derivatives “weapons of financial mass destruction.”]

Will the recently passed financial regulation help prevent future problems? On July 15, 2010, CFTC Chairman Gensler said: “The Wall Street reform bill passed today is historic and comprehensive. Over-the-counter derivatives dealers will – for the first time – be subject to robust oversight for their derivatives activities. Standardized derivatives will be required to trade on open platforms and be submitted for clearing to central counterparties. This will greatly improve transparency and lower risk in the marketplace. I look forward to the President signing this crucial legislation. The CFTC stands ready to implement the Dodd-Frank [Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection] Act to best protect the American public.”

What took Congress so long?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Funny Stuff My Mom Sez


Saturday morning, 8:00AM.

Me: "Okay, Mom, let's go get some pancakes."

Mom: [excited] "Are we going to IHOP?"

Me: "No, someplace better, called Stacks."

Mom: [incredulously] "Better than IHOP???!!"

Me: [shaking head] "I can't believe you think IHOP is the pinnacle for pancakes."

[Update: she liked Stacks, but didn't think it was significantly better than IHOP.]

Not sweet smelling by any name

Mom: "What smells? Something smells really bad."

Me: [finally noticing a smell]

Mom: "It's a skunk, be careful!"

Me: "Uh, Mom, I think that's m*rijuana."

Mom: "In the daytime?"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

One Immigrant's Perspective on America

Below is one of the most awesome letters I've ever read. First published in the San Jose Mercury News (July 3, 2010): 

It took awhile for me, an Indonesian Muslim who works and lives in America, to appreciate the significance of July Fourth. Then, I came across a quote of President John F. Kennedy that helped me understand: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." 

Since I have lived here, this nation has given me an education, freedom, security and the liberty to become a part of its society. I understand and realize that this country has paid a huge price and sacrificed many of its citizens for me, and so many others like me, to enjoy these freedoms. For this I am very grateful and this July Fourth, I simply want to say to the Founding Fathers, "Thank you." 

Tahir Ahmad 
Milpitas, CA 

Props to Mr. Ahmad.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Do Anti-Immigration Activists Use Funny Math?

Check out THIS article, alleging that illegal immigrants cost California 10.5 billion dollars a year.

The basic premise is that the children of illegal immigrants constitute 15% of the school-age population, which costs California 7.7 billion dollars annually. I call shenanigans.

How does adding an extra 15% to the school-age population add 7.7 billion dollars in expenses? Does that sound right to you? If you increase class sizes, other than extra classroom supplies, how exactly do costs go up by the billions?

At some point, new teachers have to be hired (usually resulting in jobs to American citizens), and new classrooms built, but new construction and new supplies do not cost billions of dollars each year. In short, there is some funny math going on here.

Here's how I think the partisan institute came up with $7+ billion: California's K-14 education programs receive about 50 to 60 billion dollars a year total. Take 15% of that, and you end up with about 7.7 billion dollars, a very rough estimate that doesn't factor in teacher pension costs, lifetime medical benefits, and other undefined wage/benefit obligations.

Remember: 80 to 85% of education funding goes to teachers and administrators (mostly to teachers and teaching staff). That leaves 15% to the kids. 15% of 15% = just 2.25% of total education expenditures--not an additional 15% increase in education costs. A billion dollars is still significant, but it's nowhere near the scary 7.7 billion dollars number.

Another person's response: Fact: illegal immigrants "tax" our system through free schooling, healthcare (going to emergency rooms for simple colds and ridiculous laws forcing hospitals to treat them), and the thousands of examples of illegal immigrants committing crimes and packing out jails. I know both legal and illegal immigrants. Guess which ones care about laws?

If illegal immigrants even cost the system $10 it's too much. THEY ARE ILLEGAL. Not sure what's so difficult to understand about that. Or, do you support rapists rights, too? How about bank robbers? How about people who double park or run red lights?

The article is a brief synopsis of expenses. Do you really need it broken down to understand that it's bankrupting our state? Maybe the public hospitals that have closed down in the Bay Area are example enough. No? How about the school closings?

Response to above: Illegal immigration is a complicated topic, made even more complex by the absence of reliable statistics on tax revenue (which includes sales, gas, and uncollected Social Security taxes). I just worry when anyone singles out a particular group for much of society's woes. Such resentment is easy to inflame into hatred—and easy to exploit.

I will say this: we've had illegal immigration for many decades, and we still managed to have schools and public/county hospitals do well. Thus, it seems that the issues facing schools and county hospitals result from a multitude of different factors, not just illegal immigration. Also, if the children of illegal immigrants do well and become net contributors to the tax base, many of the financial issues relating to illegal immigration become moot. Just my two cents.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sigma Designs Annual Shareholder Meeting (2010)

Sigma Designs Inc. (SIGM) held its 2010 annual shareholder meeting in its San Jose, California headquarters. CFO Thomas Gay handled the business portion of the meeting, introducing the Board and executive team. VP of Worldwide Sales Sal Cobar handled the informal presentation, which included a slideshow. Chairman of the Board and CEO Thinh Q. Tran was also present.

Mr. Cobar talked about Sigma's status as one of the top providers "of integrated home entertainment chipset solutions." (Sigma's main competitor is Broadcom (BRCM).) The easiest way to describe Sigma is that it's the NVDIA for non-gaming consumer electronics products, i.e., it makes the IC chip that goes into set-top boxes used with numerous consumer devices, from your home security system to your home entertainment system to your DVD player.

Mr. Cobar said that Sigma creates a more "stable environment" for connectivity. This connectivity allows the consumer to integrate numerous home entertainment products. (Note: Sigma's connectivity solutions work on coax, phone lines and power lines.)

For example, Sigma plans on releasing a product that allows consumers to take content from their laptops and project it onto a large television screen. This product, Neo-Vu, will use UWB (ultra wide band) technology to stream content including HDTV from a computer to a television. The computer may be using Wi-Fi or other technology to obtain the content.

Mr. Cobar also mentioned that Sigma recently completed its acquisition of Coppergate, which creates good "synergy" and increases Sigma's sales volumes and ability to scale its technology.

Some slides showed Sigma's FY 2010 net income as $2.5 million on $209 million of revenue. Sigma also has $133 million in cash or cash equivalents, a very high amount for its market capitalization.

In the overall market, 29 million units of IPTV set-top boxes were installed in 2010, and one slide showed that iSuppli, a market research firm, predicts sales of 37 million units in 2011 and 46 million units in 2012. Sigma wants to be on the forefront of this increased demand by powering the "digital home" in three ways: creating the digital family room; the connected home; and the smart home (i.e., energy, security, and entertainment).

Indeed, some Sigma-related products are truly cutting-edge. For example, one device is a combination security system and energy saver. Rather than try to change personal behavior or habits, this product makes energy conservation automatic. No more debating about how to save energy, researching what kind of lightbulb to use, or telling the kids to turn off the lights when you leave the house. When you set this security alarm, the device powers down electronic devices and other energy sources in your home, lowering your monthly energy bill automatically.

Another product tells you when your water pipes are in danger of freezing and automatically shuts down the water flow if a dangerous situation develops. In short, the product prevents burst water pipes and saves you from having to install new pipes in your home, which can be very expensive.

[Note: the products mentioned above use Sigma's Z-Wave technology inside, thus allowing them all to inter-operate, but the actual finished products are manufactured and marketed by members of Sigma's Z-Wave Alliance family including 2Gig technologies (e.g., the alarm panel) and FortrezZ (e.g., the water shut-off valve).]

One interesting piece of lingo: in its presentation, Sigma used the term, "prosumer"--a combination of professional and consumer. I only mention it because I've never heard the term before.

CFO Gay opened the Q&A session after Mr. Cobar's presentation. I asked about content availability. Some of Sigma's home entertainment technology is ahead of its time, such as 3D movies. It's true the technology is there, but if there are only ten or twenty movies that incorporate 3D technology, how quickly can the market grow? Mr. Cobar said that several years ago, he had been working with HDMI televisions, and the exact same question came up, i.e. "Where's the content?" In a play on the better mousetrap, he said, "If you build the ecosystem, the content will come." He also contended that people don't want to go back to the old/standard way of watching television, so at some point, these new technologies will become mainstream just like digital TV and HDTV.

Mr. David Lynch, VP and General Manager of the Media Processor Group, also pointed out that Sigma is set up to handle all coding and DXP sources, i.e., it doesn't matter what the standard is, Sigma can handle it. CFO Gay lauded Sigma's ability to adapt, saying that the "majority of [Sigma's] engineering talent is software-based," meaning that Sigma can adapt its software to work with any hardware.

I mentioned that a financial analyst had predicted Sigma's FY2011 EPS to be $1.17/share, which is significantly higher than the FY2010 $.09/share. CFO Gay indicated that he could not comment on analyst predictions, but the analyst might be relying on "pro forma" or non-GAAP earnings, which don't include certain charges, such as stock option expenses, amortization expense related to acquisitions and other lesser adjustments.

Another shareholder questioned the size of Sigma's Board of Directors, saying it was too small. He also said that having the same three Board members on the audit and compensation committees might present a conflict of interest. CFO Gay responded that the current Board system has "worked very effectively for" Sigma, and Sigma also relies on external compensation studies and outside experts, not just internal sources.

Overall, Sigma seems to be on the cutting edge of consumer electronic, energy, and security products. Let's hope the consumer catches up.

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of Sigma (SIGM) shares.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Marvell Technology Annual Shareholder Meeting (2010)

I attended Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (MRVL) annual shareholder meeting on July 8, 2010. I know many engineers (thank you, high school Chess Club), and whenever my engineer acquaintances discuss semiconductor companies, Marvell is mentioned in almost reverential tones. As a result, I was happy to be able to attend my first annual Marvell meeting, which took place at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Santa Clara, California.

First, the food was wonderful. I appeared to be the only non-employee shareholder who attended, so I happily helped myself to Powerbars, yogurt, coffee, soda, mineral water, regular water, and fresh and dried fruit. Props to Hyatt Hotel for creating a great experience.

Prior to the meeting, I had watched an excellent documentary about America’s ascent to the moon, called In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). I was struck by the entire world’s rapt attention to America’s technological progress in the 1960’s. Today, although many Silicon Valley companies are generating major technological leaps and bounds, few laypeople follow such companies closely. It’s assumed that tech companies will continue to great the “next new thing," but such an assumption may be flawed. For example, NASA was able to propel America to the moon by using major taxpayer dollars and incentives. Perhaps the federal government's clean energy incentives will bear fruit eventually, but I still don't see Americans coming together on science and technology like they did during Kennedy's era.

In any case, Marvell didn’t look like it was used to having too many non-employee shareholders attend its annual meeting, but it graciously allowed me to ask a few questions and get some one-on-one time with the Chairman, President, and CEO Dr. Sehat Sutardja. Some interesting facts:

1. Marvell is “debt free and ended the year [fiscal 2010] with nearly $1.8 billion of cash” on its balance sheet.

2. Marvell’s founders continue to play significant roles. Dr. Sehat Sutardja (President CEO) is married to Weili Dai (VP of Sales) and is the older brother of Dr. Pantas Sutardja (CTO). Collectively, these three people own approximately 17% of Marvell’s outstanding common shares. (See 10K, page 31.)

3. For the year ended January 30, 2010, two customers accounted for a total of approximately 39% of Marvell’s net revenue. (See 10K, page 21.)

I noticed the customer concentration, so I asked how easily these top two customers could leave Marvell and go to a competitor. CEO Sutardja responded that Marvell’s products were highly differentiated, with numerous design wins, and Marvell works hard to make better products. He continued, saying that Marvell’s technology makes its customers successful, and when customers become successful, they become bigger. In short, we will be seeing “fewer but bigger customers in the long run,” which explains Marvell’s customer concentration. Dr. Sutardja also remarked that Marvell’s customers “can sleep well,” knowing that Marvell is doing everything it can to help make its customers successful.

I asked my usual question, “What do you see as your biggest challenges?” Dr. Sutardja remarked, “following Moore’s Law.” To summarize, the pace of modern technology is so fast, you must quickly innovate, or you will be left behind. While Coke and Pepsi can continue to rely on the same basic formula for decades, no technology company can stand still and expect to survive. As the CEO remarked, you can’t find a semiconductor company selling technology that’s ten years old. Basically, “if you sleep for 18 months, you are behind by a factor of 2, and if you sleep for 36 months, you are behind by a factor of 4.” In addition, newer generations of IC chips will have more circuits placed on them, making the IC chip design process increasing more complex. On the plus side, if a technology company is successful, other companies tend to buy products from companies with proven track records–another reason for Marvell’s success.

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of Marvell (MRVL) shares.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wislawa Szymborska

When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean...

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of savagery
a clear conscience is Number One.

Wislawa Szymborska

Friday, July 9, 2010

Barry Deutsch's Cartoons

Barry Deutsch has some very funny comics HERE. Be sure to check out the one about the different types of libertarians. I wonder which one I am...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jack Paar on Flattery

"No matter what other nations may say about the United States, immigration is still the sincerest form of flattery." -- Jack Paar

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

VeriFone Annual Shareholder Meeting (2010)

VeriFone (PAY) held its 2010 annual shareholder meeting at company headquarters in San Jose, California. CEO Douglas Bergeron handled most of the meeting, but Senior VP and General Counsel Albert Liu also played a significant role.

The person manning the front desk offered only coffee to visiting shareholders, but we later found a small treasure trove of pastries, Egg-McMuffin-type sandwiches, and Odwalla juices on our own. (Note to VeriFone: if you're going to have food and drinks, have some class and offer some to non-employee shareholders--don't hide the goodies in the back. Also, the coffee was terrible. Sigh.)

I estimated that fourteen people attended the meeting, including just three non-employee shareholders. Prior to the meeting, one of the attendees mentioned that he recently traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and was very impressed with the city. Members of the Board of Directors praised Cleveland, calling it a hidden gem. (Personally, I believe LeBron James will stay in Cleveland, Ohio. If you read the book, Shooting Stars, it's hard to see LeBron James turning his back on Ohio.)

VeriFone didn't have an informal presentation, so we went directly to the Q&A session after the business portion of the meeting concluded. Some shareholders asked a few questions. One shareholder asked about payments/purchases via cell phone. CEO Bergeron responded that the security of cell-phone-payment transactions was currently "questionable." At the same time, VeriFone was working on a way of encrypting personal/financial data before it reaches the cell phone, making the transaction more secure.

I asked why international sales of System Solutions had lower gross margins than North American sales (see 10K, page 27). CEO Bergeron indicated that homogeneity leads to a premium. After the meeting, I asked him to clarify his answer, and he indicated that if you're trying to sell someone 10,000 machines for the first time, obviously the price will be lower versus a situation where you've already sold a company 100,000 machines. Why? I surmised that the more machines VeriFone sells to a particular company, the more the company benefits from scale. Thus, once a company allows VeriFone to set its payment standard, disengagement might be difficult, which gives VeriFone more pricing power.

All of the people attending the meeting were male, and, with the exception of one employee (Mr. Liu), all of the Verifone employees appeared to be at least 50 years old. I asked the CEO about his thoughts on diversity. He responded that VeriFone was open to diversity and recruits the "best and the brightest," which, in this case, happens to be "middle-aged, white" males.

Overall, VeriFone's meeting was short and simple.

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of VeriFone (PAY) shares.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Homeland Security Coming to a Screen Near You?

The Department of Homeland Security is now pursuing people who download illegal movies. Why? Because they consider illegal downloads part of the war on terror. Yes, they are being serious. Civil-liberties-be-damned and mission-creep serious. More HERE.

“The reason the Department of Homeland Security is protecting Shrek is because we are all about protecting the homeland. We’re all about protecting American interests,” says John Morton, assistant secretary of DHS...“If you don’t think undermining Hollywood’s ability to produce a “Shrek,” undermining the creativity that goes into creating a “Shrek,” undermines the United States,” Morton says, “you are sadly mistaken.”

Who the heck pays these people? Oh, wait, we do. Sigh.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

E.B. White and Independence

E.B. White: "I think the Court again heard clearly the simple theme that ennobles our Constitution: that no one shall be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe because of nonconformity."

Happy 4th of July.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mario's Story: My Highest Recommendation

Mario's Story (2007): "[E]ventually good triumphs, but before it triumphs, a lot of people have to suffer."

I highly recommend Mario's Story, about Mario Rocha, a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Equinox Flower

From the Japanese film, Equinox Flower: "Then everyone's inconsistent. Everyone but God. Life is absurd. We're not all perfect. As a scholar said, 'The sum total of inconsistencies is life.'"

Reminds me of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


Interesting piece on immigration, both legal and non-legal: