Taking A Hint About AST

Okay, okay. I can take a hint. A few days ago I wrote about AST, the stock for Asterias. It had a nice run to new records, and I wrote about deciding not to sell, and not knowing the details of the news. The details were easily uncovered by a reader. (Check the comments on the previous post .) And then the stock decided to rise higher. At one point today, it was up 50% from my last post. There was enough of a rise that taking some profits was effectively painless. I may have a hint of what’s going on with Asterias, but I still don’t know about what’s happening with AST. Spinoffs and divisions make simple stories complex, and provide opportunities for arbitrage. I’ll keep my story simple, and yet ponder the other possibilities.

For the advocates of medical advances, Asterias is definitely working to advance the technology. In particular, they are trying to help regrow damaged nerves. Succeed at that, and treating accident victims or people afflicted with strokes becomes possible in new and revolutionary ways.

For the stock hounds, AST has gone from a 52 week low of $1.37 to a 52 week high (today) of $15.10. Buy low, sell high and turn a dollar into eleven (minus commissions, of course.)

I balked at selling at $10, realizing that it should eventually go higher, especially if the trials succeeded. I bought below $3, having missed the low; so, selling a portion at $10 could recover my profits, give me a bit of profit, and let the rest ride with no real risk. And yet, go back and read my rationale for not selling then.

The same argument seemed less certain when the stock added another 50% in three days. While the stock was up 50%, the rise was also about twice my investment. I could sell even less, and still have as much left over as my total holding from three days earlier. Take a $2.50 entry. Compare that to a $10 stock, and selling 25% recovers the initial cost. Watch that stock hit $15 and see that the initial cost can be recovered by only selling 16%. Round up, sell 20% and make a profit as well. I listened to the math, partly stepped away from my Long Term Buy and Hold strategy (details in my bookDream Invest Live cover), and sold about 20% of my shares.

Congratulate myself on making about 25% in about 9 months, with substantial profit positioned for a possibly impressive future.

Here’s where the weirdness comes in. I’m guessing that the professionals already know this and that nothing is out of balance in the market. There’s too much money at risk, and too much of an opportunity for the professionals to miss profits from arbitrage plays, so surely they’ve reflected what I’m about to show. And yet, something seems amiss when I look at the market cap of Asterias, and some of its connected companies.

I own AST because I own GERN. GERN is the stock for Geron, another leading edge biotech, and one that is making too slow progress with its treatments. Through some merger, acquisition, and spinoff mechanics, the stem cell technology being used by Asterias was spun off from Geron, through BioTime, which has a division that is Asterias. As if the technology wasn’t complicated enough, welcome to the byzantine world of corporate finance. I ended up with shares of GERN, and AST, and BTX (sort of). Here is where the possible weirdness is manifested.

Asterias is using a technology that was spun off. Its value should be a fraction of the value of the origin, Geron. Asterias is a division of BioTime. Its value should be a fraction of the value of its parent, BioTime (BTX). In the time it took AST to go up ~30%, GERN and BTX went up ~3%. For a while, Asteria’s market cap exceeded its parent, BioTime, and may have exceeded its original company, Geron – all for a treatment that is only in phase 2 clinical trials.

Arbitrage lives off deviations in value across markets and equities. Surely someone has noticed. Ironically, the resolution of any imbalance may result in a decrease in AST’s price; though arguments could also be made to increase BTX’s price. Geron, in the meantime, is missing out on a substantial increase in value. They stewarded the technology for years, and simply ran out of money and time to develop all of their good ideas. Geron focused their strategy on telomerase, because it is equally revolutionary, and potentially more important because it can treat a wide variety of cancers and auto-immune ailments. If they’d only been able to hold onto both technologies, their stock would be much higher, their finances would be stronger, and more of their technologies could be advanced to the potential good of more patients.

I invest in small companies because they are easier to understand, usually. Even situations like Asterias’ are simple when compared to the intertwined machinations that are the collaborations, competitions, and complexities that are typical for mature mega-corps. For large companies, only the large financial institutions have the resources to discern the influence of one product on the whole. As complicated as Asterias’ situation is, I prefer it to trying to understand Apple or Microsoft. As an individual investor, I may not know everything about all the companies I’m invested in, but I know a larger fraction – and I know enough to notice a hint when it comes my way.

Whether AST should be lower, or BTX should be higher, or GERN should be valued for its identification of revolutionary technologies; I do know enough to take a hint when the market sends one my way. I sold a bit. Recovered my money. Took some profits. And am positioned to benefit in the future. Evidently, I may not know everything, but I may know enough.

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I Know Nothing About Asterias

“I know nothing!”, the famous quote from a weird era of television when World War II, Nazis, and concentration camps were comedies. (Could anyone even pitch such a thing now?) AST, the stock for Asterias, rose to five times my average purchase price, and I know nothing. But, I suspect someone knows something because the stock is up 20% for the week, 24% for the month, and 150% for the quarter. The only news was an announcement of a conference presentation. No news came out, that I know of, but the stock rose to record highs. Timing the action of small stocks assumes at least some knowledge of the situation. I buy knowing that, relative to the professionals, I know nothing but I may know enough.

I don’t write much about Asterias (here’s one of the few posts) because they are probably years from applying to the FDA for approval for any of their biotech treatments. They have a lot of good, leading edge ideas, but I’m only tracking one of their treatments that is in clinical trials: using stem cells to regenerate nerves. If their treatment succeeds in restoring substantial nerve function in accident victims, they have the potential to be a very beneficial, revolutionary, and profitable company. If they don’t get FDA approval, they’ll be like the majority of biotech companies – good ideas that didn’t succeed for the patients, the company, and the shareholders.

Somehow, within the vagaries of the investing world, Asterias is valued at over $300,000,000, at least after this week’s run. Evidently, someone else thinks they’ll succeed, and is willing to wait a few years for the company to become far larger.

Basic investing advice ignores that potential. If the stock is up five-fold, sell off 20% and get back out the initial investment. Sell off 30% and recognize a 50% return on investment. Those are good bragging rights, especially for holding a company less than a year. The stock is ‘only’ up about 375%, but I acquired some shares as the company did an interesting spin-off from Geron (GERN), another of my holdings. Nice profits.

Reality recognizes that, while mathematically correct, selling a chunk now produces so little money that my portfolio would end up with the equivalent of spare change. If I knew of a better investment with less risk that would help balance my portfolio, I’d consider it, and may yet; but I don’t, so I didn’t.

Something was said before, in, or after that meeting. Maybe the purchases were all speculation. The price rise didn’t exhibit the common pop as news hits, or the suspicious variation that sometimes happens prior to the event if something leaks, or the rush for orders as a session lets out. I know nothing. The latest news on Asterias’ web site is a shift in the time of the presentation; hardly a reason for a bunch of buys, unless it was to become the closing plenary.

It is appealing to invest in a company that may help accident victims regrow damaged nerves. The treatment reaches further into helping patients with multiple sclerosis, stroke, and other such ailments. If Asterias shows sufficient success in clinical trials they may produce broadcast-worthy news that will increase demand for the stock. Maybe that’s why the renewed interest arrived.

Investing in story stocks is a mix of speculation and valuation, psychology and logic, subjective and objective perspectives. There are companies actually making money that are worth far less than Asterias. Investors and speculators are willing to buy and hold based on their opinions and estimates of how much more the company and stock can be worth years from now. Waiting until FDA approval means potentially missing out on great gains. Buying too early means exposing a portfolio to risk. Sometimes both happen: FDA approval and a stock failure. (Look to DNDN as an example. Oops, you can’t because the company went bankrupt. Check Dendreon, which was making a few hundred million a year the last I checked.)

Someone knows something. I doubt the presentation was made to an empty room by a machine. People were involved. Regulatory Full Disclosure suggests that any news should be made public to all; and since nothing was announced, nothing new was said. The presence of a steady ramp in price suggests at least one entity decided to buy. I take that as encouraging, but not as definitive. I recognize the demand can fade quicker than it arrived. I even suspect the price could drift back down as we wait for more news, public or private.

For now, I’ll hold, as I was doing before the presentation; and watch, because someone somewhere will eventually say something. Maybe that will be a press release from the company. Maybe the news will be a leak, or at least someone’s interpretation of the presentation. Those are all fine details, part of the noise, because what I do know is that, if Asterias succeeds, I’ll have many reasons to be happy to be an AST shareholder.

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Bots Buy Houses

And you probably thought buying and selling houses was bizarre before. Bots are now buying houses. Algorithms, computer programs, are estimating the value of houses as they are listed for sale, comparing that against the price the computer thinks the house can be resold for, and then making an offer if the potential profit is high enough and the risk is low enough. It isn’t happening in every market, but just like with stocks, there are more reasons for corporations to get the computers to work for them, with a bit of human oversight. The Digital Singularity may eventually be a singular moment, but on this side of it, we’ll probably see change accelerate, computers proliferate, and humans become less dominant. How does that fit into your retirement plan?

Originally, the stock market operated by people getting together, comparing prices, making deals, exchanging the stock and money, and repeating. There was corruption, but there was also an openness and a pace set by humans. Computerized trading was probably one of the first tasks given to the machines. At the start, the computer could only recommend because trading was done by humans. Eventually, in the interest in efficiency and therefore profit, computers were given more access. Trades were made by humans, but instead of face-to-face, the communication became electronic. Speed increased. Costs decreased. Commissions were undercut by discount brokers, and eventually individual investors could submit orders without human intervention. Ah, the good old days. After computers were allowed to initiate the sale and the purchase, trading volumes jumped because decisions were made at CPU speeds instead of neuron speeds. One symptom that things may have gone too far are the flash crashes that occur when only the sell orders are executed. Now, nanoseconds matter. Light travels at about a meter a second. Electricity travels almost as fast. It has become profitable to shorten the physical distance between computers so one set of computers can outperform another set of computers. Humans are less involved every day. The people on Wall Street are, however, going to continue collecting their bonuses.

In a world like that, why invest in stocks? All of that frenetic trading concentrates on nanosecond movements in stocks. The long term prospects of companies continue to operate at human speeds with processes and progress measured in months and years. The stock may bounce around every nanosecond, but the company travels a steadier path. An individual investor can hear a company’s story, apply some understanding of human actions in the marketplace, decide if supply and demand apply, and then decide to invest in the company or not. Fluctuations of fractions of a percent are insignificant compared to long term growth rates of doubling, tripling, or climbing into much higher multiples. An individual can’t think faster than a computer, but at least for now, an individual can look further ahead, and act accordingly. Day traders, however, may find themselves being increasingly outcompeted.

Real estate moves at human speeds. A stock trade can happen in a few nanoseconds, but a house trade can take weeks or months. I consider the closing on this house to have been a stellar accomplishment because I went from making an offer to getting the keys in less than three weeks. Besides, each house is unique. History has an affect. Condition isn’t readily apparent. (Thanks, Kath.) There may be multiple constraints on the title. There can even be confusion about what the exact property is. The surveyors were on my street again. Imagine how busy they’ll be after an earthquake.

As I said above, there is a place for a computer. The earliest cases were probably in the biggest markets, with lots to choose from, and were measured against the widest margins. If the error band is 10%, but the house is listed at 20% below what the computer considers to be a reasonable resell price, then trust the computer – at least to make an offer. At this point, that’s all they are doing. The computer checks every new home in the market, quickly makes an offer based on the data in the listing and the records, and then sends out the pesky slow humans to inspect, verify, and close the deal. Do that often enough with wide enough margins and get the majority of the best buys, leaving humans to work out the deals that are closer or more troublesome.

Computers made Wall Street wealthy; not as if the brokers were poor. Computers may make someone in real estate wealthy, but the task for the real estate agent changes. A bot won’t care about an open house or the smell of fresh cookies. Staging won’t matter to a bot. The tactics devised to appeal to humans won’t apply. Just the facts and data, please.

The Digital Singularity will surprise most people. The concept and the term are uncommon. The rate of change isn’t a surprise anymore, but few expect everything to radically change in a minute. Between those two are changes seeping into specific jobs like stock broker and real estate agent. Wall Street has less to do with people and more to do with data. Real estate may undergo a similar change. Similar changes are also happening in trucking as autonomous vehicles reduce the need for drivers, and farming where sensors can track a crop or a herd.

I don’t know of any way to invest in the trend, unless I was to go back and learn how to program the bots, which might be profitable but counterproductive.
I do know that I’ll pay more attention to the Zillow estimate of my house’s market value. It is now within 5% of my Make Me Move price. I have my doubts about the validity of the estimate considering the house across the street is about the same size and hasn’t sold at 30% below my house’s Zestimate. (Though that house’s Zestimate is still 8% below their asking price.) What I’ll be watching for is whether there’s any interest in my house when the Zestimate matches or exceeds my Make Me Move price. I’ll be curious to find out how they found me, whether it was a human or a computer that first took note. I’ll also be curious to see whether I’ll say yes. That decision will be made by me, not a computer, because for some things emotions matter.

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Tax Weirdness 2015

Ah, spellcheck, you’ll be asked to work hard tonight because filing today’s taxes was taxing and the recovery cocktail couldn’t wait for me to finish dinner and the blog. Taxes were so much simpler (and sometimes cheaper) when I was a millionaire. (Tax Inequity Increase)

Selective amnesia may account for a simpler tax season back when I lived off my investments; and yet, the perplexing minutia involved in figuring out taxes for the self-employed consultant/artist is enough to inspire a suite of coping mechanisms and a release from logic. The US Tax Code isn’t supposed to make sense, but this is what we get to deal with every year.

Rather than try to describe the bizarre nature of the task, I’ll simply provide the chronology of working my way through via TurboTax, and maybe summarize the experience if I can find some order in the chaos.

Begin the tax weirdness that was – My Bizarre Tax Day 2015

6:30 AM

  • Wake up knowing that, on a workday Sunday (Rule of 7) that would normally be full because of work, I am required to find time to calculate and pay my taxes.
  • Rather than get caught up in the anxiety immediately, roll back over, close my eyes and remember to focus on necessities: rest, food, work, then taxes. Realize that I can simplify the self-imposed task of writing the blog by writing a chronology instead (which is what you’re reading.)
  • In proper frugal fashion, after a fine breakfast, begin the creation of homemade soup by simmering yesterday’s chicken carcass and last month’s veggie scraps to create a healthy stock and broth. Spend the next eight hours listening to it barely burbling in the background.

8:30 AM

  • Using work (which is necessary) to avoid paying taxes (which are legally required.)
  • Watching tweets about taxes go by as asides to my regular newsfeed (Pretending Not To Panic, #PNTP)
  • As part of the Pretending Not To Panic newsfeed come across an article about the federal debt.
  • Unsustainable Federal Debt needs my taxes, but if the government isn’t sustainable eventually taxes aren’t collected.
  • Reminding myself that this entire task was delayed until April’s pay for March’s work arrived. The check arrived Friday, April 10th. Collecting every dollar readily available in the hope that I can pay in cash, or on my credit card.

9:30 AM

Work on clients’ communiques because I’m not the only person working on a Sunday morning.

10:00 AM

Work in the museum (the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum, where I’m the project manager) as usual, and particularly because there’s just been a major conference (Museums and the Web 2015, aka #MW2015) and set of opportunities.


Gotta eat. Might as well so some laundry while everything else is going on.
Make a purposely procrastinating phone call to commiserate with a good friend about taxes. He’s just going to have to file for an extension. Good news or bad, take your pick.

2:15 PM

  • Finally get to working on taxes, grudgingly.
  • Maybe I should put on the right music first.
  • The day started off with blue skies, and now is overcast with building clouds. Looks about right.
  • Cue the blues on Pandora.
  • Notice the symptoms of an anxiety attack. Yuck.
  • Sort through TurboTax’s emails to figure out which one to actually respond to. In the last four months they’ve sent me fourteen emails. Nag.
  • Sweat kicks in. Shed a layer.
  • Forgot my password. Nothing new considering I only need it once a year.
  • Confirmation number via email. That was easy enough. It’s almost as if I’m not the only one who doesn’t keep track.
  • Time to buy TurboTax Home&Business yet again.
  • Call up a friend to share a tidbit they were trying to figure out that I learned from TurboTax. Evidently, it is already paying for itself.

2:37 PM

  • Past the Personal Info section and dive into Business.
  • Realize that Schwab probably went paperless because I can’t find the forms in my manila folder.
  • Compile the nuisance yet necessary 1099s. Some of these forms are for less than $20. It probably cost far more than that to produce, verify, mail, and then verify them again.
  • Interesting side note: half of book sales were from Europe. Well, at least I got some business insight out of this.Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland
  • After all of the 1099’s are entered, TurboTax produces the first tax estimate. About a 66% increase in taxes on a 31% increase in revenue. The details will shift this. Right?

2:56 PM

  • The anxiety symptoms have risen to audible burps.
  • Now, time to figure out the business incomes that weren’t reported on 1099s. One of the consequences of having so many jobettes: consulting, teaching, books, photography, writing, miscellaneous, is that there are lots of little boxes to fill out even when they don’t add up to enough.

3:13 PM

  • After all of the additional revenue, the estimated tax has climbed 86% for a 60% increase in revenue.
  • The good news, thanks to TurboTax, my business’ gross revenues went up 81% from 2013. Maybe I’m doing something right, even though I’m not making enough to have enough in the bank account to pay the taxes. Ah, but the deductions will make the difference – I hope.
    I need a break.

3:25 PM

Oh dear, the dreaded self-employment tax, the bane of my recent tax history, the tax I didn’t know existed until I had to employ myself because I couldn’t find a full-time job. It is up 82% from last year. Ouch. And that’s an understatement.

3:33 PM

  • The business section of TurboTax is over. My headache is climbing. Begin deductions, and hope that alleviates the pressure.
  • Side note: Glad to see all the renewable energy credits, even if I can’t take advantage of them.

3:57 PM

Still working through deductions and the estimated tax payment hasn’t budged. Please budge. Please.

4:04 PM

  • Drumroll. time to tackle the healthcare section which is now influenced by ACA, aka ObamaCare. Does it make things worse or better?
  • There’s a drop of ~5%. The right direction but far from making a difference.
    Hit Continue and the tax comes down 32%. Whew, thanks!
  • Done with Health. Yeah, living in America feels that way.
  • There’s a quick check on the risk of triggering an audit based on regular patterns. I bottomed the chart for audit risk. Random audits happen. (And I suspect I’d get money back.) But then, maybe writing about taxes raises the risk. Does the NSA talk to the IRS?
  • The total is bad, but I expected worse. I don’t have enough to pay it directly. It could squeeze onto my credit card, which I could quickly pay half of. Ah, but there’s a button for an installment plan. For the first time, I make that request.
  • Much commiseration. I’d prefer to do a 50/50, but they lead to an all or nothing situation; so I guess I’ll avoid the credit card and ask my government for some consideration. Let’s see what the delay does.
  • Hmm, no form, just a request for a phone number and a preferred time to call, as long as it is on the hour.
  • Terms, and I get to suggest them? Okay. How about one-twelfth per month and due in the middle of the month?
  • Given the choice I choose to pay by check – for control.
    • “You’ll hear from the IRS about your request within 30 days (or longer if you file after March 31). ” Sounds like a one month delay. Breathing room.
    • “You can use the installment plan only once every 5 years.” Unfortunate, but understandable.
  • Hit the button to file and suddenly find out that:
    1) I have a payment voucher with a due date of 72 hours from now for the value of the one-twelfth payment.
    2) I have a payment voucher with a due date of 72 hours from now for a quarterly estimated tax payment.
  • Eep. It’s a good thing I didn’t wait until the 14th, because at least I can make a sprint to the post office tomorrow to express mail the checks. Forms only have to be postmarked by the 15th. Payments, from what I can tell, are due that day.
  • At least the total payment due in 72 hours is less than a full payment. This is a new experience for me. I have no idea how owning the government money really works. Yet another episode opens.

5:23 PM

  • Done, and set everything for a while.
  • Relieve the tension by calling my two of my closest friends, mixing myself a martini, having dinner, and watching a bit of nonsense television (Netflix.)

Doing this every day would definitely be unhealthy. TurboTax makes it easier, but answering the questions without knowing if the final number will fit inside the bank account is taxing. This has definitely been an exercise in coping mechanisms and perspective shifts. By the end, my taxes went up by less than my business revenue reversing the trend from last year when I paid some of the highest taxes on the lowest income in my life. At this rate, next year I may continue the trend where I’m making enough money to pay lower taxes. If my stock portfolio recovers (come on MVIS), my income may increase while my taxes decrease. Maybe that won’t be the case. Maybe, as I make more (being an optimist), I’ll pay more. That’s acceptable when I making more than enough. It’s been years since I made more than enough. My truck, house, and health are proof of that. But, the government has received its share. This year, the government’s share will be a bit delayed, I think.

Rather than putting this all behind me now that I’ve filed, it looks like tomorrow will be a workday dash to the post office, possible negotiations with the IRS over the payments, and regular payments that extend into next tax season. Tax Day just became Tax Continuum. Yet another episode in Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By (the working title to the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live.).Dream Invest Live cover

I think I’ll mix myself another drink, and make some popcorn after I clean the stock pot. Whew. If you’re in the US, good luck with your taxes. If you’re not in the US, I’ll assume your country’s tax system is perfect – just because I’ve seen enough tax weirdness for a while.

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Small Town Coworks Considerations

Write a few words, kick off a lot of conversations. Well, I guess that’s why humans developed communication. Last week’s post about a coworks closing inspired a suite of  incoming phone calls, emails, and meetings about possible reincarnations – and I wasn’t even the one running the show; I just happened to use the space. Good ideas are rarely perfect when they are new, and a bit of testing and trials can create new variations that are hopefully improvements. Coworks in cities have worked out the worst imperfections. Coworks in small towns have a bit more work to do; and it is work that should be done because telecommuting creates opportunities to pull income into places that could benefit greatly from even small increases.

The coworks I used closed for strategic as much as financial reasons; though, if it was making gobs of money it probably would’ve stayed open or simply shifted locations. Small town coworks, or really any small town business, deal with smaller populations. The fewer people in the area, the fewer people are likely to sign up for such a shared space. Of course, if coworks worked better in small towns, there’d be more incentive for telecommuters to move there. Catch-22s persist.

The response to my post tells me that there’s a demand and an interest in providing a supply.

The demand (extremely generalized and only representative of possibilities):

  • programmers – who may need nothing more than few distractions and a reasonable connection, and occasional coordination calls
  • writers – who may not want distractions, need a reasonable connection, and occasional coordination calls
  • graphic artists – who need big monitors, lots of bandwidth, and good lighting
  • consultants – who need space for discreet conversations and calls, and who benefit from networking
  • advocates – who need a mix of content creation, extensive personal and social media networking, and possibly lots of calls
  • agents – real estate, stock, whatever, who have to deal with clients, professionalism, and possible regulatory restrictions
  • and a list that doesn’t stop with architects, engineers, counselors, etc.

The supply (generalized and open to creative innovations):

  • coffee shops – the standard, which was also the inspiration for creating coworks because, while they are convenient, have a good business model, provide food and drink, aren’t private or quiet or ergonomically comfortable for hours of work
  • libraries – very handy, especially since they’ve embraced technology with high-speed connections, computers onsite, a variety of desks, tables, and chairs, and a special bonus of on-site researchers and – get this – a library of books, but not quite public and no longer the quiet bastions of introverted scholars
  • extensions of existing office businesses – print shops, office supply stores, and shipping centers have a natural overlap with many businesses, easy upgrade to professional equipment and services
  • spare offices – another standard, rents for about $1/sq ft (highly negotiable), and requires a manager who probably expects to be paid
  • community spaces – whether on purpose or by accident, lobbies, lounges, and foyers can provide free wi-fi and free seating and may even provide quiet alcoves for quiet conversations
  • restaurants and bars – an option I rarely see exercised, but a great opportunity for better utilization of the space, a semi-captive audience, and a possibility of swapping out tea and cookies for beer and fries, something the creatives may appreciate

And then there are the pesky details of 24/7 access, supply storage, crowd control, management of the other coworkers, and who is going to clean the toilet.

In the last week, I’ve been asked to consider about a dozen of those possibilities. Thanks for the honor of asking me for my opinion. Glad to be of service.

I haven’t worked out the specific numbers yet but it looks like, to open a commercial coworks, people have to find it attractive to spend:

  • more than $1/sq ft for rent,
  • add >15% for utilities,
  • add something for insurance,
  • add something for marketing,
  • be able to pay their share to a manager at least minimum wage (174 hours/month) plus free access to the space,
  • with adjustments for the level of access
  • and adjustments for the level of service.

It’s late enough that I’m not going to add that all up (maybe at a coworks I could ask for a volunteer), but it definitely suggests that size matters. The lower limit is what it takes to barely make it work. The upper limit is where it just becomes cheaper for a person to rent their own office space. That bracket is about $400/month for the coworks and about $400/month for an individual. A 400 square foot space with four people each using about 100 square feet could cover the bare minimum at $100/month, but would end up paying more. Halve the individual’s floor space and double the people without changing the price and there’s a few hundred to pay a manager, which is not minimum wage.

Fortunately, I don’t have to find the solution. There are more than a dozen people working on it. Hopefully there are more than a dozen people who want to use it. The best solution for a small town may already exist in the coffee shops, libraries, and common spaces; but maybe something scalable, more professional, and beneficial to the local economy can be found. Good luck. Tell me what you find. I’ve been working on my regular collection of jobs for the last 14 hours today and don’t have the energy left to close the deal. Of course, if I was working in a coworks, maybe we’d cooperatively find a solution. After we find it, let’s see if we can share it. There are a lot of small towns that could use the help.

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Courageous People Fight Taboos

There are courageous people in this world. Just like with frugality, some people are courageous by choice and some by necessity. I gave a talk about a taboo subject and only drew a small crowd, but they were the courageous ones who were willing to show up, share stories, and see how much fun we could make of the situation. We came to talk about money, in public, and that’s not easy. The consequence of the talk? More than one person found the advice they needed because they were willing to show up, be vulnerable, tell their story, and listen after others had listened. It is amazing what happens when we actually communicate regardless of fear.

The talk was a simple one, but one I’ve never given before: From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By.23697 Middle Class to Millionaire The title will probably shrink the more times I give it (unless the local library system, Sno-Ilse, decides to leverage the work they put into the poster.) I’ve lived in all of those classes; and in retrospect, realize that my early childhood was probably on the lower edge of that first class.

I find myself as a member of a transitional generation. Prior to my generation, people had a good chance at a lifelong career; or even better, a career that let them live long enough to enjoy retirement too. After my generation, the concept of a lifelong career is seen as a marvelous fantasy because they know their business will probably radically change before they reach retirement. The only-somewhat-of-a-joke is that if your job requires information more than five years old your industry is stagnant, and so is your job.

Money, finance, and income have changed dramatically in the last three decades. Go back to 1985 and realize that people had to visit banks, stocks were traded by people, and working hard at a job was a way to get ahead. Welcome to ATMs and digital currencies, discount brokers and high frequency trading, and an American Dream that has more to do with guarding against falling behind rather than making progress.

The talk was a first attempt at finding another venue for talking about the dramatic changes we’re facing wrapped around a topic with far too many taboos. Rather than sit around and commiserate and complain, I decided to use the possibility of a sequel to Dream. Invest. Live.Dream Invest Live cover as an opportunity to share and collect stories gathered from the weird world of our money, to find the fun in our dysfunctional finance system. I could test which stories would work well in the sequel, and also open the door and the floor to others who had a need to talk.

I’m an optimist. I always hope for a large crowd. I’m also a realist. I’m not surprised if only a few show up for an unproven presentation. That’s the life of an author; book signings and talks do not always create crowds or long lines.

I told stories about the bizarre world that is trying to survive foreclosure, the world of apparently felonious finance that’s ignored by the SEC, and the patchwork process that is the current job market where a series of shifting jobettes is becoming the norm.

The treasures of the evening came near the end. Two people shared their stories. We were all hunting for the funny, but the struggle showed through. The treasure, however, came from the responses. One woman described her situation, where she hadn’t found an answer for over two years; and then found that she was sitting beside someone who had found a way through almost the exact same situation. The cost of the talk (keeping the library open later and what they paid me) was far less than the value of one person, one family, possibly finding resources that may ease their efforts.

I, too, received a valuable insight. Two of the people in the front row (always a courageous act at a talk) passed along an observation. I was looking for a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Jon Oliver type of humor, and it wasn’t working as well as I wanted. They pointed out that Mark Twain (and later I realized Will Rogers) were far better models for a writer. Guffaws are fine on television, but wry insights reach farther when people are reading.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” – Mark Twain
“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” – Will Rogers

That couple are Ann Medlock and John Graham, the people behind The Giraffe Heroes Project, a project that goes around the world supporting the people who are sticking their neck out for the common good. (They are also both accomplished authors, Ann’s new book is Outing the Mermaid, and John’s is On the Edge.) The range of income, wealth, and power inequality we experience in America is probably still not as extreme as what they’ve witnessed in places that few people dare to visit.

Societies change slowly, even though events like Bastille Day seem abrupt. The underlying issues accumulate for decades. Most of America is content enough to not advocate for change; but more of America is finding change is happening without their choice. People are changing by necessity, and frequently the change is counter to the conventional wisdom perpetuated by the media and political parties. It may seem like it is only happening to them, but until they tell their stories, they may not know how much company they have. Speak up, people! And listen to each other, too.

My emphasis, at least for this blog, continues to be personal finance. As much as it would be nice to not have to worry about finances, money continues to drive almost every life. I’m fortunate enough that I am just old enough to begin collecting an accelerated pension. For at least a few years, my pension will closely match my mortgage payment. That doesn’t mean I get to relax much. The next biggest block of expenses are non-negotiable: taxes and insurance. The government mandates both. I gain some benefit from the taxes; but the insurance is almost exclusively an expense. I can afford, house, car, and health insurance, but I can’t afford house, car, or health repair and care. My choice is to look at that and mutter to myself, or complain – or to reach into the inexhaustible yet too-little exercised practice of pointing a finger at the situation and finding the humor in it, wry or otherwise. And, I hope far more do so too. Maybe quiet laughter will be more powerful than shouting.

Now, to practice channeling my inner Will Rogers. Do I have to learn how to lasso cattle and do rope tricks first?

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Long Live The Coworks

My key chain just got lighter. The two keys that got me into the coworks were turned in because the coworks closed down. For almost two years The Langley Coworks has been my office, really just a bit of wide counter space beside a window, but it was my base of operations through some of the most difficult times of my life. It was also the opportunity to work in Langley without having to spend hundreds per month on rent, or subject myself to ergonomic and auditory contortions trying to work from a coffee shop. For whatever reason, it couldn’t survive, at least in this incarnation. The idea is sound, though, and is indicative of the new world of work.

office photo 062813

A coworks is a simple idea, yet was probably too simple for people to consider it seriously at the start. Just like many people who thought Starbucks’ high-priced coffee seemed like a ludicrous idea, coworks tap into a trend for a redefinition of space. Coffee isn’t something to get for the lowest cost and the greatest convenience. There’s a value to quality, and the right environment. I saw that, drink tea instead of coffee, and still bought into SBUX as soon as possible. It was the third place that mattered as much as the beans. No particular coworks company may command such a broad appeal, but there’s a demand for places to work that aren’t the traditional office or working from the kitchen table. Conventional corporations are encouraging employees to work elsewhere. It may be sold as freedom, but it is also a cost savings to the company.

Ideally, a coworks does more than provide a desk and some wi-fi. That’s the essence of why they work; but the additional draw has more to do with the sharing economy. A community sharing a resource can become more than just a collection of individuals. Coworks bring people together, and mix them up creating connections that are random and that can also reveal unexpected opportunities. Coworks in Seattle and other large cities gather crowds of hundreds. A coworks in Langley gathered, well, many times there weren’t even enough to finish off a six-pack. And yet, collaborations happened. It is the only reason I came across my second substantial client: Curbed Seattle.

Working from home works, as long as everything is handled over the internet. I don’t have to share bandwidth. I can wear what I want, and can swap into a good shirt if there’s an online meeting. During my rare breaks, I can do some chores or get in some exercise. It’s nice to be able to match my works schedule to the tide charts and sneak in a low tide walk. It’s definitely cheaper to work at home. Skip the commute costs. Lunches are more economical. There’s no extra rent, or need for double sets of office supplies. Phone calls can go on without interrupting anyone. And, all of my stuff is here, not divided by ten miles.

I’ll miss the bicycle commute (which was put on hold after my computer developed a glitch), the sound of the lunch crowd and the smell of bacon coming up from The Braeburn downstairs, the baristas calling out the orders and the smell of coffee roasting at Useless Bay Coffee Company, the crowds hanging out while a band cranks up at South Whidbey Commons, and the Second Street Market that closes the street and fills it with people and art and food in season. I’ll miss taking advantage of knowing the timing of the sales in the Star Store grocery. I’ll miss being able to take a break by visiting friends who work their businesses in town.

Langley Second Street Market 060713

Coworks are a recent innovation, and some implementations will succeed, and some won’t. Innovation is like that. One of the most important things was that someone was willing to try. The folks at Fusion Spark Media ran the coworks, and also knew when to stop running it. For some reason it didn’t quite become self-sustaining, or at least wasn’t as strategically aligned with the rest of their business.

Society succeeds when it tries things, learns, and then adapts the concept before trying again.

Take a look at most coffee shops. The people are are likely to be spending time with their devices as with each other. The mobile workers are either positioning themselves for a good wi-fi signal and maybe a power outlet, or are paying for cell-phone data transmissions and hoping their device’s batteries last. If they want privacy, they have to rely on lots of background noise, or expert whispering. But, at least the coffee is good. Just make sure to time conversations to miss the hiss of the espresso machine.

There’s a variation that I haven’t seen, a middle ground between a coworks which is dedicated to working and a coffee shop which is dedicated to sipping.

  • Take a coffee shop. Make sure it serves good coffee (and tea.) Provide lots of power outlets, good wi-fi, maybe even some direct cable connections, and acoustically buffer the machine. Provide a space where someone can come in for coffee, or maybe linger long enough to recharge their phone. That’s common enough.
  • Then, have a section that is accessed with an hourly fee, a place for respite, more of a lounge with upholstery as some coffee shops do, but with more of that acoustic buffering. Done right, it can also be a place to meet for quick business meetings, or a refuge for a spouse that doesn’t want to shop. Maybe have two or three computers for better access than a cell phone plan. Include a printer for the rare use of paper.
  • If there’s room, add another level of service where there are spaces ergonomically designed for the work lives of  today’s computer-centric jobs. The rents are by the day, the week, or the month, depending on the need. All the other spaces are temporary, but here a person can store their stuff, have their office supplies available. Phone booths are a major bonus for calls that require discretion, or at least to minimize disruption.

While I’m dreaming, I’ll add a bicycle garage, a locker room, and a shower, but that’s because I prefer to exercise on my commute, and to not impose the olfactory results on my neighbors.

Society is changing, including the nature of work. Spaces where we can share resources, opportunities, and support may become as ubiquitous as coffee shops because the era when everything, including a life-long string of paychecks, was paid for by an employer is passing.

The coworks is closing. Long live the coworks.

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Walking Into A Frugal Spring

Spring is here. It is knocking on the frugal storm window in the bedroom. The sheet of plastic is popping as winds from the south blow in the new season. March’s lions and lambs are secondary to getting me, my house, and my yard ready for growth. The potatoes, apples, and raspberries are looking healthy. So are the caterpillars, the slugs, and the hopeful deer.

Silly human. I scoff at your fencing.

Silly human. I scoff at your fencing.

The shift in the season is happening whether I do anything or not, so I guess I should spend some time tending my home, my base. I’m doing so as frugally as ever, by necessity as much as by choice. That’s true for this spring, and true for this recovery.

Here’s a measure of my frugality. Yes, I’ll try to squeeze every last bit of toothpaste from the tube. No, I won’t slice it open and scrape down the insides.Photo on 2015-03-27 at 20.00 I’ll finish my plate, but won’t lick it clean (unless we’re talking batter in a bowl after baking.) Frugality taken to an extreme can save money but cost too much time, and time is too precious to waste. When frugality was from choice instead of necessity, I’d spend more money to save more time. When frugality is from necessity instead of choice, I’m more likely to decide not to do something than I am to try to squeak in some activity by barely clearing its hurdles. That level of tightness costs too much in emotional energy.

The fence fell down – again. Of the twenty sections, eight have fallen. I can take a hint. After I’ve saved up some money after paying my taxes (wince and groan) I hope to buy some simple metal wire fencing to replace the appealing yet faltering wood slat fence. In the meantime, the gaps are filled with a bit of chicken wire, some deer fencing, an old pallet, and some 2x4s propping up a few sections. The necessity is keeping the deer out, so that this year I get more than two apples and a handful of figs. Chicken wire will have to guard against rabbits. Vigilance and acceptance will have to guard against the caterpillars and the slugs.

Almost everything I’m growing is either a perennial, a volunteer, or a start from a friend. I hope to grow a few things most people skip: ginger, mushrooms, and maybe some gourds. My friends are better at the veggies, and my neighborhood doesn’t allow the tall nut trees I’d prefer. But, I’ll grow what I can, how I can, even if it means growing some of them indoors.

My community of friends are a frugal bunch, though I suspect few would give themselves the title. We live in a semi-rural area. The rural comes from the low population density, reasonable soil, plenty of rainfall, and relative lack of development. The semi- part comes from the proximity to Seattle, which makes the south part of Whidbey Island a commuter’s community too. The people working in ‘Merika may be the biggest source of income for the island. Tourists are obvious, but commuters are here throughout the year. The frugal folk, however, frequently are the ones trying to earn a living on the island, and fill in their resource gaps with impressive gardens, arts, crafts, and services. They may also be the ones best prepared for a shift in the financial climate.

The gardens may look a lot alike, but the motivations differ. Some grow their own to get the best food possible, without having to spend a lot of money on ‘organic’ or spend a lot of time making sure the food deserves the label. Some grow their own food because they can’t afford to buy it, organic or not. Some, of course, grow their own for the joy of gardening – or in at least one case, as a way of spending less time in the house with the spouse. Almost all are aware that, if some disaster was to hit the island or our greater civilization, what they grow will become vital and much more valuable. Enough people here are globally aware to be concerned. It is sobering to see the diversity of topics that all lead to the conclusion that growing your own is a good idea. We also live in an earthquake and tsunami zone and realize that emergency responses will probably start in downtown Seattle and only eventually reach the island. Some wind storms have knocked out power for days. A disaster that damaged the ferry terminal would mean an even longer recovery time. The response times for Katrina and Sandy were educational.

Our economy is coming out of a winter as well. The data are so confused that it is hard to say whether things are better or worse; which is probably an indication that both are correct but for different people. Unemployment is down. Yay! Employment is also down. Huh? There are fewer people in the workforce now than there were in 2007, before the Great Recession. Spring can feel like winter in the morning and summer in the afternoon, and maybe what we’re witnessing is a bit of that economically.

Interest rates are low, but so are the rates on savings accounts. Inflation is low, but only when measured against an artificial standard of living. For some, inflation is much higher. For some deflation happens. For most, it is a mix.

The worry is that, while physics enforces the return of summer, economics does not ensure the return of prosperity. If the consensus was that happy days will be here again, then there’d be less emphasis on fences, bug defenses, and viable seed supplies.

I fantasize about winning the lottery jackpot, and make sure I have a ticket. A persistent realization is that, my intuitive response to winning the lottery would be to switch my frugality from necessity to choice. I see mansions for sale, and find nothing that appeals to me. Maybe if I won I’d change, but I’ve had the big house and watched how much of my time it cost. I see acreage for sale, and appreciate the land that is workable, and am not drawn to great expanses of lawn. A view would still be nice. I see new cars drive by, and realize I’d rather fix the truck, and maybe get a smartcar, scooter, or better bicycle. The best use I see for the money is to undam my plans, regain my health, have fun more often, and provide some real security – the type of security that matters when the infrastructure isn’t secure.

I return to the totally unofficial movement I’m witnessing: the Walk Away Movement. As power, water, sanitation, food, and communications become more decentralized, people are incorporating that potential into their household. The counter-movement, which is gaining far more attention, is the extreme urbanization in evidence in places like Seattle. As our society bifurcates along so many lines, yet another division is along self-reliance versus complete dependence. If we know we’re heading to a summer where everything is warm and growing, the complete and mutual dependence may be the better bet. If, however, economics isn’t as reliable as physics, then I’ll be glad for good deer fencing, homegrown mushrooms, and a lot of practice at frugality.

I wonder if I could brush my teeth with a slice of ginger?

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A Sad Reverse Split For AMSC

Do stock splits confuse you, as if they don’t make any sense? Yet another company finds their stock sliding and tries to make it better by splitting the number of shares to raise the price, as if the price was the problem. I want to lose weight, but my weight gain has less to do with what I eat and more to do with how I exercise. AMSC’s board approved a reverse split of the stock, as if the price of the stock will affect the health of the company. Theoretically that should work. In decades of investing, I have yet to find an example where a reverse split in the stock made the company healthy. Cutting back on what I eat hasn’t been nearly as effective as exercising regularly. I plan on working out more. I don’t know what AMSC is planning to do differently, yet I know that they probably felt like it was the only choice they had. They had other choices.

Stocks aren’t companies. Stocks represent partial ownership of a company, but the movements in the stock can be completely irrelevant to the operation of the company. Someone buys a share at a slightly higher price, the market cap goes up, but that doesn’t affect the people on the assembly line, in the office, or in the field – unless they let it.

Stocks do, however, influence financing; so, they do influence a few folks in the offices. The Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Executive Officer are definitely aware. A low stock price is not an encouraging sign to suppliers and customers. A low stock price also affects employee compensation. Getting loans becomes more difficult. Convincing people of the viability of the company becomes harder. So, when a stock falls far enough, long enough, to possibly be de-listed from the stock exchange, action is taken.

A reverse split is a simple mathematical trick. Assuming the total value of the company doesn’t change, decrease the number of shares by 1/x  and increase the share price by x. The share price stays above delisting criteria, and everything’s fine.

Except that everything isn’t fine. Everyone involved knows what happened. The concerns amongst financiers, investors, customers, suppliers, and employees are the same before and after the split; though now, the reverse split becomes an event that heightens the awareness.

The argument is made that delisting is something to avoid. Ideally, delisting should be avoided, but: 1) the fundamental issues are unresolved, 2) the share price shift doesn’t change anyone’s actions that I’ve witnessed, and 3) delisting isn’t as traumatic or final as the act of a reverse split.

My two favorite stock split stories are at opposite ends of the market. Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) is a $347B company with a stock price of $217,000. One share buys a modest house in most of America. Three shares buys a nice house almost anywhere. Berkshire Hathaway does not split its stock. Splitting the stock has more to do with trading than investing. Berskshire Hathaway wants investors, not traders; so, as the company has grown the stock has truly reflected the advance. GigOptix (GIG) is at the other end of the spectrum. GIG trades at $1.24 and is a $40M company. Sell 200 shares of BRK-A and buy 100% of GIG. GigOptix encountered a sliding share price, was advised to conduct a reverse split to maintain the listing criteria, and decided against it. The GigOptix management decided to accept the delisting and concentrate on running the company. They were delisted, and … the only thing that happened was that the stock was traded on a different part of the exchange. People could still buy and sell the stock. The company saved the money and hassle of arranging for a reverse split. Now, GigOptix is making about $33M per year.

I always vote against stock splits. From what I’ve seen, splits are expenses with no benefits. Theoretically, benefits exist, but they sound more like the sales brochure from a finance house rather than useful business advice.

Trying to convince me that a stock split is a good idea is like trying to convince me that, instead of buying something for $1,000, I’ll somehow be better off buying in ten 10% chunks of $100. That sounds like the easy payment plan from late night TV (another anachronism.)

I look forward to hearing about renewed efforts to sell AMSC’s superconducting cables, motors, voltage regulators, or any of their products. Those products, their potential, and their positive impact on the world are what I am invested in. (check my Semi-Annual Exercise EOY 2014) Improving the company will improve the stock price. ‘Improving’ the stock price, well, that improves the stock price, but only for a little while, and even that will fail unless they improve the company.

Now, as I look in the virtual mirror, I am going to make sure I get in my walk tonight. The best way to get my pants to fit better has more to do with how I move my legs than with buying a different belt.

Photo on 2015-03-25 at 19.59

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MicroVision Spring Catalysts

Spring is here. Time to put away the turtlenecks and sweaters and lose enough weight to fit back into my shorts. We’re one season and almost three months into 2015. As one commenter put it, calling $MVIS’ recent action ‘distracting’ is a gross understatement. The weather around Seattle turned warmer than usual, but we knew the season was coming. MicroVision’s spring has been anticipated for what feels like a small Ice Age, and now that we’ve seen the first cracks in the ice, we may see sudden spurts of latent growth. In the last month, MVIS has risen 85% and at its peak it had more than doubled. If only one news item was expected and delivered, then that would be enough for a while. There are good reasons to believe, however, that other catalysts will sprout up by the end of the year, which is closer every day.

Small companies move on news. An $8,000,000 order followed by a $14,500,000 order for MicroVision may have encouraged MVIS to rise 100%, but the same amount wouldn’t budge a company like Sony. Buying and holding stocks in small startups can be exercises in impressive patience, unless you buy in just before the pop as some lucky folks manage. Timing such events is difficult. I’ve held MVIS for 15 years, and have expected such pops several times, and been wrong. This time feels different.

MicroVision press releases, conference calls, and stockholder meetings have left me with the impression that management expects at least a few more catalysts this year. Catalysts can be anything: a favorable mention in social media, a product launch, earnings reports, etc. Each catalyst is an opportunity for analysts and investors to re-evaluate the company and re-value the stock. Speculation about the results attracts traders who swing the price around within the first few hours or days, but it is the research results from the larger institutions that eventually set new price targets for the stock. The sudden rise in MVIS faded a bit as the traders entered and left the arena; and now we wait to see what the major investors think.

The company has already announced revenues that exceed all previous years, if those revenues were to all arrive this year. Enough of them should to set a company record. Maybe that makes the company cash-flow positive; and maybe not. MicroVision is working with more than one customer, and some of them are expected to announce other products this year. Even the customer that has paid $22,500,000 can create additional catalysts when they launch their products. And then, there are the customers that are secret and surprising. Few if any expected Celluon to launch the first products of 2015, but the PicoAir IMG_0417is already available and the PicoPro should be available soon. They expressed an intent to launch more products. There may be another customer or two or more who are just as secretive. And then, of course, the hints and suggestions may become no more than words, as has been the previous history at MicroVision.

Here is my collection of speculative customers and catalysts, and speculations about their possible announcements.

  • Celluon mentioned in a PicoPros video that they are interested in developing and launching multiple products by the end of the year.
  • Sony, the Fortune 100 Global company?, announced a similar intent; which would match nicely with the $22,500,000 deals mentioned above.
  • Both are selling to the consumer electronics market, which suggests that they’d launch their products before the end of November.
  • UPS has been evaluating MicroVision’s technology to improve their package handling. Implementing any such process improvement would probably happen before the shopping season to ease training and reduce the risk of interruptions.
  • A Fortune 500 company is supposedly going to launch an enhanced smartphone this summer, now rescheduled to be the second half of 2015, which again would probably happen before December.
  • Two auto companies, Ford and a Tier One supplier, have been developing Head Up Displays for years, and may be close to launch, and may not be as tied to the holidays.
  • And then there are the unknowns, like Celluon.

There speculation is layered on speculation to the point that I won’t even speculate except to give them a place on the chart.

The chart. I decided to graphically represent the possibilities. This is crude, and is meant more as a source of discussion than prediction. I look forward to improved versions from people who are better at reading MicroVision’s tea leaves.

MVIS Catalysts
The one message I get from the chart is the matter of timing. Of the twelve months, two are gone, another is mostly gone, and the last one may be too late for most customers. That leaves a significant number of catalysts within a bit more than 8 months. Add in the company events like earnings reports and the stockholders meeting. As we get closer to 2016, add in news releases about 2016 products. Put them all together and I see the potential for many more events like the one MVIS shareholders just experienced. If revenues were solely dependent on component sales, then I’d be concerned about resource limits; but MicroVision’s business model also includes licensing, royalties, and support services.

Such potential can be hard to accept, especially considering MicroVision’s history. MVIS is a story stock, which also means that rational valuations may not mean as much as market psychology. In retrospect, the stock may be seen as being undervalued. It is just as possible that it can be overvalued. That debate has already begun. From what I see in MicroVision’s possibilities for 2015, that debate doesn’t look like it is going to end soon. Maybe by this winter shareholders will have learned that what sprouted in the spring wasn’t an annual, but an evergreen.

Stay tuned.

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