Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stockholders vs. Bondholders and Autos vs Banks

So by now hopefully you've heard that somebody in Washington finally grew a pair, as President Obama officially rejected the restructuring plans submitted last month by the nation's #1 and #3 auto companies GM and Chrysler. In doing so, Obama pushed longtime GM CEO Rick Wagoner out of the company over the weekend, and has essentially given Chrysler 30 days to finalize its partnership with Fiat in order to receive another $6 billion in funding, and GM 60 days of restructuring financing while both companies must make the "painful changes" required to leave them as viable, growable businesses going forward. Both companies presumably face some sort of organized bankruptcy unless dramatic action is soon taken to align these companies' cost structures with those of their more profitable competitors, and with GM it may not be possible to avoid that restructuring at this point no matter what they do. There are several hundred thousand jobs of hard-working Americans directly in the balance of this industry, and another several hundred thousand in ancillary industries like auto service, parts and distribution, and other things like satellite radio to name a few, so it's a very fine line the President has to walk to be sure. And yet, it seems like this AIG disaster -- more likely the political fallout from it -- has left the President feeling far less generous than he once was when it comes to doling out federal bailout money.

It's interesting to take a look at the different approaches being taken here by the Obama administration with respect to the automakers as compared to the financial firms at the center of the global credit crisis. In December, Citigroup more or less "failed" in that it required some $50 billion in total of emergency taxpayer funds and another $280 billion in emergency government guarantees on bad assets to prevent its impending collapse, with Bank of America coming very close to the same fate and requiring less on both counts, but still requiring a government injection of liquidity in the tens of billions just to prevent the market from swallowing the firm whole. In agreeing to spend all those billions of dollars for the two struggling banks, did President Obama and his team require the leadership of the banks to step down? Somehow, no. Somehow, Vikram Pandit is still the CEO of Citi, and Ken Lewis is still the CEO at Bank of America, despite both clearly failing as leaders, overspending on things like corporate junkets, jet fleets, office renovations and god knows what else, and overseeing the firm's decisions to take on -- clearly -- far more risks than they could comfortably cover should the economy slow even a little bit.

And yet these guys still lead their companies. It's something the Obama administration has taken heat for already since the end of last year at least, despite numerous public mistakes made by each CEO in the general strategy and direction of their firms over several years, both resulting in the need for more taxpayer cash than the combination of GM, Ford and Chrysler so far over the past several months. And now, in an interesting twist, GM CEO Rick Wagoner is pushed out over the weekend, and there still isn't even a plan to save the company at all. Chrysler was allowed to keep its CEO, who unlike Wagoner at GM was only installed a few years ago as part of a private equity buyout of the firm. But Chrysler, too, still has no plan for long-term survival, and still needs to hash out the final details of a proposed partnership with Italy's Fiat in order to get $6 billion more in emergency funding from the U.S. government, and even then we can all imagine how long the $6 billion is going to last Chrysler if the situation does not improve dramatically from the Fiat deal.

So Obama threw out the longtime CEO at GM this weekend, even though absolute public clowns like Vik Pandit at Citi and Ken Lewis at Bank of America have been allowed to keep their jobs despite needing more money than the automakers have received so far. That's an interesting change in policy, and is emblematic of what I am hoping is a key change to representing a much more hard-line approach to the government intervening to save failing companies going forward.

The most significant aspect of President Obama's new harder line with the automakers reagrding government bailouts, however, is something that has bugged the shit out of me ever since these bank bailouts first started, actually since a week or so before the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last symmer, and that is the different treatment of the bondholders vs. the stockholders in these failing institutions by the Obama, Geithner et al. As you probably know, the stockholders in failed financial institutions like Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Citigroup and Bank of America all saw their stocks drop to at least the $2 level, mostly down 95% or more from their recent highs, and many of the above have seen their shares denominated in cents, not in dollars. The stockholders of the truly failed firms like WaMu, Fannie and Freddie, and of course Lehman Brothers, literally lost almost their entire investment as their shares traded at just a handful pennies before all was said and done. Those who invested in the stocks of these companies took an absolute bath, losing in most cases between 95 and 100% of their entire investment, almost without regard to where they bought in anytime in the recent past.

Such has not been the case with holders of bonds in these firms. Other than Lehman Brothers, whose abrupt weekend bankruptcy last September caused bondholders to lose an estimated $110 billion in bonds due to be paid out over the next several years by the failed investment bank, those who invested in bonds issued by the other companies mentioned above have all continued to be paid in full and on schedule. Bonds are by their nature senior to stocks in that, in the case of a threat to a company's viability, its bondholders get paid out first before any stockholders. As a result of this lesser risk involved with investing in corporate bonds as opposed to stock in the same company, bond investors also get lesser returns, but more consistent, secure ones. As a result, bond investors tend to be large asset managers and other funds with a need for solid, steady, if a bit understated, but consistent, secure growth. A bond fund might return only 3% a year right now, but a comparable stock fund returning an average of 10% per year might lose 40% this year (for reals). In theory, the bond fund should not suffer such losses because its income is backed by bonds of companies and other institutions that offer it a steady and secure stream of income that is senior to what is owed to the stockholders of the companies issuing the bonds.

As a result of this, and of constant propaganda from piglets people like Bill Gross, co-CEO of PIMCO, the world's largest bond fund, the bondholders in all those financial companies above that failed last year if not for massive government intervention amounting to more than a trillion dollars system-wide, have yet to lose a dime. Even though the underlying firms would never have been able to continue making their bond payments without the massive injections of taxpayer aid and government guarantees, that taxpayer money has been used in part to continue to make regular payments to all the bondholders of those firms, on schedule and in full. It's almost as if the powers that be in both the Bush and Obama administrations are afraid that "haircutting" the bondholders even one time with one of these companies it has to prop up could lead to some kind of systemic panic as a result of all the large pension and other funds and asset managers who rely on investments in these companies' bonds to pay their steady, secure income streams forever. We let guys like Bill Gross take ridiculous advantage of the system, too. This guy manages the largest bond fund in the world, remember. As Fannie and Freddie spiraled towards armageddon last summer, Gross took a look at the situation, and on July 28, 2008, it was reported: “We like it,” said Bill Gross, who oversees the $128 billion Total Return Fund, the largest bond fund in the world, for Newport Beach, California-based Pimco. “This legislation has indicated to investors that Fannie and Freddie are not implicitly guaranteed, not explicitly guaranteed, but we’re close to that point.” As a result of this feeling that the government would not dare haircut the bondholders in these failing firms, Gross sold most of his treasury and other government bonds, buying up instead agency mortgage bonds from -- you guessed it -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. By the time early September came around, this guy was so sure the government wouldn't let the bondholders in Fannie and Freddie fail that he actually had some $80 billion of his $132 billion bond fund invested in Fannie and Freddie bonds. And as Gross bought up all the Fannie and Freddie bonds he could find, he took to the airwaves, going on CNBC and saying the government had to put up $40 billion to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to protect the companies' bondholders from taking any kind of a haircut at all which he claimed would threaten the entire U.S. and global financial system.

And Bill Gross wasn't done. After making more than $1.7 billion on the Fannie and Freddie bailout where the bondholders' investments weren't touched while the stockholders got essentially wiped out, he then started buying up bonds of the other troubled financial institutions, all those companies I mentioned above, thinking once again that the government would be too afraid of the systemic risk following from any major corporate bond failure like what happened with Lehman Brothers last fall to haircut these other financial firms' bondholders, picking those bonds up at distressed prices fueled by fear, uncertainty and doubt. And once again, the propaganda mill began -- in his monthly newsletter released on February 24, Bill Gross said, "Regulators are overwhelmed as it is, and if you thought Lehman Brothers was a mistake, just standby and see what nationalizing Citi or BofA would do. Our banks remain at the heart of domestic/global financial transactions and daily clearing, while those Scandinavian banks were not. PIMCO would not dispute the need to further capitalize systemically important banks via convertible bonds held by the government, which unfortunately dilute shareholders’ interests. To go further, however, and “haircut” senior debt or even existing preferred stock similar to that issued via the TARP would create an instability policymakers should not want to risk. In turn, forcing creditors to take haircuts would undermine other financial sectors such as insurance companies and credit unions. The goal of future policy should be to recapitalize lending institutions while maintaining the basic infrastructure of credit markets. Outright nationalization and haircutting of creditors will do just the opposite." (emphasis added)

So once again, here is this clown arguing that the bondholders' investments in the bonds of these struggling companies cannot be touched. Essentially, he seeks a guarantee from the government that his fund's income cannot be stripped or lessened, and he invokes the fear from the Lehman Brothers collapse as the end-all be-all reason why haircutting the senior debtholders must never be considered.

Well I got news for ya, Billy. What are you, anyways? You're a bond investor. Say it with me. Bond. Investor. These are investments. They're not guarantees. If they were guaranteed, they would be what we call interest, on FDIC deposits in federally-insured banks under the insurance maximum. Which, by the way, would be paying you what, half a percent a year right now? Less? But no, Bill Gross isn't satisfied with a half a percent a year, guaranteed. He chooses instead to invest in corporate bonds of very weak companies, which may return something more like 3-5% a year, and on occasion will enable him to make billions of dollars in a year like he did in 2008, a several times greater return than he could ever expect from a truly guaranteed investment. Yet he will try to scare the pants off of everybody who will listen about how the government simply has no choice but to protect the bond investors in these firms, and so far the government has listened and obeyed. Why? Because of the fear that, if they don't, then pension funds, income funds relied on by retired people to live on, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, insurance companies, banks, credit unions, etc. will all suffer a huge panic due to the realization that their income is not really guaranteed. But this income never was guaranteed! It's an investment. Bonds do have risk, bank savings deposits under the federally insured limit do not. Treating the bondholders like their investments are as untouchable as my savings account in the bank is dangerous, and sets up all the wrong incentives in the world. Why on earth have taxpayers provided $180 billion to keep AIG afloat, its stockholders saw their investment drop as low as 30-some cents earlier this year, and yet those who invested in bonds to be paid over a long period of time regularly by AIG not suffered a penny of loss? How can that be? Why? AIG failed, plain and simple. It's not even arguable. Why did Bill Gross, who bought up $80 billion of Fannie and Freddie debt when he knew the companies were going to fail get to make $1.7 billion when the government forced the total wipeout of those firms' shareholders but protected the bonds 100% of each company? Why?

With GM as well as Chrysler, the Obama administration is now, finally, triumphantly, making it known that holders of bonds -- investors in bonds -- in these companies are likely to suffer along with investors in these companies' stocks. GM alone has over $27 billion of outstanding unsecured debt, with Chrysler adding another significant chunk to that total, so the prospect of a Lehman-esque bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler is likely to result in a very noticeable $50 billion-plus "event" in the credit markets as a whole. Although this is going to be painful for the markets, and for all kinds of investors and in particular those who invest in corporate bonds as a measure of security, I cannot escape the conclusion that it is the right answer nonetheless. Nobody made these funds and asset managers invest in bonds, corporate bonds, or auto sector corporate bonds, right? Especially knowing and seeing what's been going on for the past several months, clearly there has been ample time to exit these positions prior to this week's rejection of the automaker restructuring plans. No, if you have continued to invest in auto company bonds, at this point my position is that you deserve to take a massive haircut in light of their imminent failures. You bought in or held on and greatly diminished prices, taking a gamble -- a risk -- that you could use that beaten-down price to create an opportunity for a big profit if things broke your way. But things didn't break your way, and now you should pay the piper. Investing in bonds is still called investing for a reason, and those investments still carry risk that they will not be repaid in full.

My best hope right now is that a GM and/or Chrysler forced bankruptcy and restructuring will serve as a model for the government to eventually use with all the financial firms it has bailed out over the past few months or will need to continue bailing out in the future. Keeping the bondholders 100% whole, while forcing the stockholders to bear all the brunt of the losses at these flagging financial firms was never fair, and it was never right. It's time we make investors pay for the risks they took in buying all these bonds issued by deeply struggling companies. Remember, they got a greatly decreased price to buy in as a result of the higher risk associated with those struggles; not making them suffer the direct result of that known higher risk puts the entire financial system at unnecessary and unfair strain. It's time that bondholders -- generally large, megabillion-dollar asset managers, hedge funds and the like -- step up to the plate and take on their fair share of risk from their investments in failing financial institutions, especially where the risk of investing in such entities' bonds was fully known at the time of the investment. For a new president publicly espousing this whole "era of responsibility" motif, the move to punish the bondholders of GM, who took a chance on the company's long-term survival right along with the shareholders, is a clear step in the right direction, and one can only hope this move helps him to see the right way to deal with the major banks of this country as well going forward.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Final Four

Well the Final Four is set for Detroit this coming weekend, and it does not include a couple of the teams that most people had assumed would be there. The Big East did get its two teams into the Final Four, both fully deserving, but those teams do not include either Louisville or Pittsburgh, perhaps the two most-often picked teams to win it all this year based on their regular season schedules. Instead, UConn and UNC plowed through their brackets as #1 seeds, not really being hugely tested along the way, including Carolina pretty much dismantling Oklahoma despite another awesome performance by Blake Griffin, easily the best player in the country this year.

Oh yeah, and don't you just hate when this happens to you:

God, I remember the first time I smacked my fucking temple on the backboard during a live basketball game. Dam did that ever smart.

Anyways, Villanova took down Pittsburgh on Saturday to gain its spot in the Final Four in what probably will go down as the best game of the whole tournament this year. I know I wrote about this as the tournament was beginning a couple of weeks ago, but Jay Wright, what can you say about him. He is just a great coach, and he has the Villanova wildcats playing about as well as you could ever expect to see them play. With 46 seconds to go in that game, Nova held a four point lead as Pittsburgh inbounded the ball, and then Pitt fought back until a last second drive did them in and ended their chances at defending their #1 seed in Detroit this year, in just about the most entertaining 46 seconds of basketball you will ever see:

And still I have left the best for last, as Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans broke down all-around #1 seed Louisville on Sunday afternoon, just two days after Louisville utterly demolished Arizona 103-64. I mean, even though Arizona clearly has no business playing on the same court as most of the teams remaining in the Sweet 16 in the tournament given how bad their regular season was this year, to take a tournament-experienced team like that and trounce them that bad, you couldn't deny that Louisville was the best, hottest team in the country after that beatdown, but MSU simply clamped down on the Cardinals and just would not let them score when they needed to. After Louisville took the lead early in the second half, Michigan State went on a little run, built their lead back up, and then refused to look back, shocking the world in the process.

Which leads me to my overall point about this year's Final Four -- as with many years, this is really a celebration of great coaching as much as it is about great players. On the one side you've got Jim Calhoun, having led UConn to two national titles and a 35-12 record in the NCAA tournament, including 4-0 in the Final Four, and having taken a UConn program that was nowhere, completely non-existent in 1986 and built it into an absolute powerhouse, year in and year out over the past 10+ years. This is Calhoun's third Final Four appearance, the first two both resulting in national championships.

Then you have Roy Williams, who made the NCAA tournament in his last 14 consecutive years at Kansas, averaging nearly 28 wins per season, before leaving for Carolina where he has once again made the Big Dance in every season since his arrival in 2003. Williams won the AP coach of the year award in 1992 with Kansas and again in 2006
with UNC, making him only the second coach to ever win this award with two different teams. He is third all-time in NCAA Tournament wins with 49 and has an NCAA postseason win percentage of .731, fourth-best among active coaches. Eight of his teams have been seeded No. 1 in a region in NCAA play, and he has coached a team to 30 or more wins eight times, which is the second-most in NCAA history. He has won 20 or more games 18 times in 20 years (winning 19 in his first seasons at Kansas and North Carolina), including 14 straight seasons at Kansas, a streak that equaled the third longest in NCAA history. Williams has been to eight Final Fours over his 21 year coaching career.

Jay Wright, clearly the youngest of the bunch, coached at Hofstra from 1994-2001, culminating in three consecutive postseason appearances from 1999-2001, before being named head basketball coach at Villanova in March of 2001. Under Wright, Nova has improved dramatically since the 2001-2004 teams, including making the Sweet 16 four times in the past five years. His coaching resume is nothing compared to the other three coaches left in the Final Four, but he is young and has only coached at a premiere college basketball program for the past eight seasons, and those of you out there who follow the sport will know that he is a great gameday coach, and has managed to get quite a bit out of less talented teams than many of his peers.

Tom Izzo has been the head coach at MSU since 1995, and in 14 years he had lead the team to 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the 5th longest active streak in the nation, six Final Fours and 26 NCAA tournament wins, second only to Duke's Coach Ghey who has tallied 29 wins over the past 12 seasons. The difference is, Coach Ghey and Roy Williams have accomplished their impressive tournament records by routinely splitting up the 5 or 6 best, most talented high schoolers in the country every single year. Tom Izzo, on the other hand, hasn't even had a single player that I would describe as truly "great" in his entire run. Shawn Respert is probably the best player MSU has ever had during Izzo's tenure running the team, and of course most of you out there are probably thinking to yourself, "Who?" Exactly. Nobody, and I mean nobody, consistently does more with less talent than Tom Izzo, period. I mean, Mateen effin' Cleaves? Zach Randolph? And yet somehow, every single player that Izzo has recruited and who completed their full eligibility has gone to at least one Final Four under Tom Izzo. Not sure how anybody in the country can beat that when it comes right down to it.

So these are the four men who will battle it out in the lovely paradise known as Detroit, Michigan in a week's time. Although Rick Pitino would have been a great addition to the roster of Final Four coaches this year, the bottom line is that we are looking at one of the best conglomerations of truly talented, deserving coaches I can ever recall meeting to decide college basketball's national championship.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Wicked Witch is Dead

It's a wonderful day in the neighborhood, folks.

I mean, my bracket is shot. After hanging in there through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Thursday saw me lose two of my Final Four teams in the span of about 10 minutes, obliterating my picks and removing me from contention in any pool worth its salt. But despite my brackets crumbling and going straight into the wastebasket, I have to say I am in a great mood here nonetheless. So why am I so happy after my bracket got shredded on Thursday?

Duke is gone. Again. And they did it this year in spectacular fashion, by hanging close to Villanova in the first half but then getting completely crushed all throughout the second, eventually losing by 23 to yet another Big East heavy.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead
The Wicked Witch
The Wicked Witch
Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead!

I could easily go 850 years without seeing another shot of that a-hole Coach K screaming on the sidelines, yelling at the ref for calling a foul after one of his players slammed another guy in the back of the head during game play with an obvious intent to injure. That butthole Steve Wojihowski slamming the floor from the bench and yelling "De-FENSE!" The idiot Dukies bopping up and down in the stands, every last one of them honestly believing they are the smartest, most clever sports fans in the history of the world. As hateable as the coaching staff surely is, and the fact that the school consistently brings in the very best players in the country year in and year out in a form of legalized unfairness, I think it's the asshole fans who really give Duke the reputation that they have earned over the years. I mean, these guys make Cowboy fans look like only fucking losers, but nothing worse. So seeing them get their comeuppance, whenever it finally happens every year, is always a great thing. The fact that the team has now not made the Elite 8 since 2004 with the best talent in the country refreshing itself on a yearly basis is just a bonus as far as I'm concerned.

The Big East went 3 for 3 so far on Thursday in the biggest story so far of the NCAA tournament. If overall #1 seed Louisville manages to win on Friday, then we'll be looking at four of the Elite 8 teams all coming out of the Big East, which hasn't even come close to happening ever before. And that's assuming that the hated Orange of Syracuse don't also come up with a victory to make it five of the Elite 8 teams. There aren't many people stupid enough to have decried what the Big East has already accomplished in the Tournament, but presumably the few morons out there who have done so will now finally stop embarrassing themselves by keeping their haterism quiet(fat chance). I've heard about an east coast bias, a Big East bias, and even the unthinkably idiotic claim that all these Big East teams making the Sweet 16 means nothing because they were all seeded highly enough that they were "supposed to win", so who cares if the entire last four rounds of the Tournament are more like the Big East regular season schedule than the Big Dance. I will never understand people I guess.

Enjoy the rest of the Big East Tournament II everyone. I will be back on Monday with my regularly scheduled posting.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

MTT Stats

It's vacation time again for the Hammer Family, as we are once again spending a few days in a place far warmer than it is back home in New York. Not that spring isn't basically springing right now in New York either, as it's finally started to warm up a little at least in the northeast after a colder-than-average winter for sure, but hopping on a plane and finding your way to warmer climes just never seems to get old, does it? So pardon me if this space might not be updated quite as regularly this week, but I'm doing my best.

Today I thought I would post something interesting I found during my poker play earlier in the week. In a nutshell, UltimateBet has an interesting feature where the statistics tab does not reset like all the other real poker sites do every time you log out and close the poker client. Rather, on UB, those stats continue to amass over time, unless you specifically opt to reset them, which I have not. As a result, I have hand statistics saved up on my account on UB ranging over nearly 6000 hands, all of them large multi-table tournament hands. No sitngos, no cash hands, absolutely none. It's just 5800 hands played in all ranges of multi-table tournaments, from the opening rounds of extremely deep-stacked play that UB specializes in, all the way to late-round and final table action where you're certainly playing more hands as the table gets shorter and shorter. And the best part about these stats is that they are legitimate good poker stats, comprising every tournament hand I have played over about four months of solidly profitable poker, to the tune of probably about a 6k - 7k profit over that time period. So I thought it was interesting to take a look at those statistics and see if there is anything interesting and worthwhile to glean from them as far as hints on playing profitable deep-stacked mtt poker.

So here are the numbers:

In terms of conclusions, first with the easy stuff. I have seen 20% of flops in total, a number that may seem high to some of the tighties out there, but in reality is right in my wheelhouse as far as the way I play the game. And keep in mind, this figure of my relative tightness/looseness includes all hands with 9 players at the table, as well as five final table runs and a few top-3 finishes, each of which included a significant period of time at 5- and 6-handed play and even fewer near the end of the big tournaments I have won this year on UB. So I don't think the 20% of flops is anything extraordinary, other than to demonstrate that one can certainly play very profitable, very successful poker seeing that many flops overall. I have periods where that percentage is up closer to 25 or even 30%, and I have also had times when I'm playing much tighter for whatever reason. I remember when I won my first major tournament, the Party 40k some three years ago, I think I saw 7% of flops over the entirety of the event. So I can play it all those ways, but over 6000 hands I've seen 20% of flops and won a lot money doing it.

Another overall statistic that I find interesting is my 47% winning percentage in showdowns. 47% is decent, but it's not anything superb. Again, I have had periods where I've run that number closer to 60%, and other times when it's been down below 40. In general, although I think that's a number you don't necessarily need to focus on as much as some people do, I imagine that anyone is going to have trouble playing consistent winning poker if you're losing more than 60% of your showdowns seen. Interestingly, a couple of years ago when I was focusing more on cash play, I found that once that number got down below 50%, I was having trouble winning consistently at the game. But in tournaments, I find that as long as I'm above 40, 45%, I can do ok.

Going along with the above stat is my winning percentage in those hands where I see the flop. In this case, over 5800 mtt hands on UB, I am at 46%. This strikes me as a huge number, and I think it reflects my aggression on the flop and afterwards to have won so much. It is that percentage, boned up mostly by relentless betting and raising on the flop, turn and a little bit on the river as well to cause folds in my opponents, that allows me to get away with only winning 47% of my showdowns. Normally as I mentioned I have found 50% to be a better target for showdown winning percentage, but if I am constantly making other players fold their hands when I do see the flop, then I can afford to take a little the worst of it come showdown time and make up for some of those losses by all the pots I pick up along the way. That's Doyle Brunson for you right there, if you're a Super/System fan like I am.

Moving down the rows in the stats chart above, I note that while my checking percentage is roughly the same on the flop, turn and river, my check raising percentage steadily increases the later in the hand I get. That surprises me in that it's not something I am ever thinking about at the table, but I guess it makes sense for me. I've always been someone who doesn't mind giving someone a chance of catching up if I have a strong hand, because I am always aware of the odds and I am confident in my ability to fold if I think I am beat or that my opponent might have just spiked his flush card on the turn or river. Given that, I don't normally like to check raise so much on the flop, because it is such a strong move and generally tends to tip your hand's strength and chase most opponents out unless they are bloggers morons or on what they think is a really big draw. When I'm check-raising on the flop, it is most often either a monster draw like a straight and a flush draw, or it is a beatable hand like a big pocket pair that I want to find out early if I am behind by making it very obvious that I am strong early in the hand. Otherwise, if I flop a set or a straight or something, the odds of me check-raising the flop are quite low, whereas on the turn I will do it a little more due to the increased amount of chips already in the pot on this street, and on the river why the hell not if I think I can get more chips out of my opponents. But that's the lesson I take from this particular statistic -- not check-raising as much earlier in the hand as later has worked out very well for me over time in several thousand hands of profitable mtt play.

The next row covers my calling percentage, and you might notice that these numbers tend to be fairly low, another symbol of what I think of as generally profitable poker play, especially in tournaments when chips are short and you can't reload. Those of you who have played with me often know how unusual it is for me to just call before the flop. Usually, I am raising or I am out, unless I'm either slow-playing, I am in the big blind, or I have a multi-opponent hand like suited connectors or a small pair. I am confident that almost all of those 12% preflop calls fall into one of those three situations. Similarly, after the flop, I call less than 10% of the time, culminating in the river, my lowest calling percentage of all the streets of 6%, which is just as it should be. By the river I should have a very good idea of where I and my opponent am at in the hand, and just calling a bet on the end indicates that I think I might be ahead, but I'm not confident enough to raise. That doesn't happen much with me, and I am glad to see it in print there in the form of hard math to support what I already thought about my general strategy about calling in this game.

My betting percentage is almost exactly identical on the flop and turn, although I was a bit surprised at it being only 18%, especially on the flop. I certainly am an avid c-bettor on the flop, as evidenced by my overall 46% winning percentage on flops seen, but I guess the 18% reflects at least somewhat the fact that I do not just recklessly c-bet all the time like I used to way back when when I was first starting out and read Super/System for the first time. In other words, say I open-raise from middle position with an AJ or AT type of hand. If I am called twice from late position and then the flop comes all raggy, the odds of me leading out with a bet are not so great. Certainly I will fire out about 2/3 of the pot often enough to keep people from calling me with crap preflop, but the bottom line is, the odds are great that with two LP callers behind me, someone either has a higher Ace than me, a pocket pair, or maybe has flopped a set or something. One of the big changes I made to my game a few years ago, to very solid profits I am sure, has been to not c-bet recklessly when I am highly likely given the preflop action to be behind and where my opponent is not likely to fold. Is the guy with AK or 99 folding against me in the situation I described above when I raised preflop, got two LP callers and the flop comes all raggy, or comes KQJ or something like that? Hells no. So why c-bet it then, right?

Raising percentage is another interesting statistic buried in the above table, indicating that I am raising 12% of the time before the flop, which gibes nicely with my 20% of flops seen. This means more than half the time I am seeing the flop, I am raising. In fact, if you take out the small blind and big blind limping I have done, that number probably is more like 15% preflop raises out of 20% of flops seen. And then you need to factor in as well the incredible deep stacks featured only at UB among all the major poker sites. Due to this, I have adjusted my play significantly there to seeing far more flops early on in mtt's on UB, many of those extra flops seen coming in the form of calls with low suited connectors, semi-connectors, etc. The bottom line here is that when I am seeing a flop, I am generally raising before the flop, to try to chase people out right there and to give credibility to the c-bet that I am inclined to try to lead with on the flop as well. Adjusting my raising percentage down a bit to see some flops with more speculative hands is an adjustment I have made just for the deep stacks on UB, and if you looked at this stat on all other poker sites for me I'm sure I am raising more like 75-80% of the time preflop when I am seeing a flop overall. The only other aspect of my raising percentage worth nothing is that on the flop and turn, I once again do not tend to raise as much as I do on the river, for all the same reasons I discussed above in connection with check-raising. I have always been the type of player who can wait until later in the hand to give away the strength of my hand with a raise of some kind, because I have a solid capability of folding when I believe I just got beat with a particularly bad turn or river card.

The last thing I would mention about the above mtt stats is my percent of hands won before the flop. Take a look at that number -- 7.77% over 5800+ hands. That basically equates to about 450 hands I have won before the flop, just like that. Many of those occur early in the tournaments to be sure, but a fair number of them are midway through and many of them are late, at final tables, down to the final 3 or 4, etc. This is basically the entire key to my poker success in my view. I have won nearly 8% of the total tournament hands dealt to me without even seeing a flop. With typically 9 or close to 9 players sitting at the table with me, that equates to basically 1 out of every 12 hands dealt, I win before the flop. Not only does this bring me a ton of chips, chips I need desperately to amass early and to survive late, but this kind of relentless pressure before the flop is crucial to my desire to build up a loose image early, one which I can more easily take advantage of later in the tournament when I do pick up a big hand or make a big flop and can surprise someone who is looking to push allin or play back at me in a big spot.

So there it is, my read on my stats over several thousand mtt-only hands on a site where I have a very strong ROI playing at those statistics. For those of you who never do this, if you care about your game and your success playing it, I encourage you to take a look at your own stats -- most real poker sites will offer you this kind of detail on your play with little trouble as part of the normal poker client -- and try to figure out what you're seeing about the way you're playing overall, and more importantly, whether those things are helping you or hurting you as you try to make money in online poker tournaments. If anyone notices anything starkly different from what I see in my stats, I would always be interested in hearing the what, and more importantly, the why of those differences.

Have a great week everyone. I will try to be back tomorrow with another quickie to end the week, but either way I am back in New York next week and will be back to my usual blog schedule at that time. For now, I am off to the beach and the luscious 80 degree weather already here long before noon local time. Somebody bring me my dam Captain n Coke please.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New Geithner Bank Bailout

So Monday saw embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner reveal to the public the details of his public-private investment plan designed to rid the large U.S. banks of the troubled assets on their books, threatening to make the entire system insolvent in their wake, and the market reacted in a majorly positive way, rising 7-8% across the board on the day as Geithner finally won the approval of investors around the world after several attempts. I spent much of the day reviewing the details provided by Geithner, and I think I have come to my conclusion.

I like it. I really, really like it.

I mean, let's take a step back for a minute. I have made no secret here of my lack of fandom for throwing all this money at the banks. There is little doubt that the administrations of our current and last president were staunchly in favor of gifting funds to the banks it deems "too big to fail" for risk of them damaging our entire financial system beyond easy repair. This is something which President Obama has not even tried to deny, stating repeatedly that despite personal and public feelings around the essential fairness of bailout out Wall Street fat cats, it is common knowledge that the economy simply cannot and will not enjoy meaningful growth again unless and until the banks start easing up on credit. So the thinking is that, even though we all kinda hate it, we simply will have to hold our noses and print money for these banks to replace the capital eaten away by losses on all the troubled assets, bad mortgage-backed debts and other crap sitting on banks' balance sheets after the last ten year or so of irresponsible consumption and investments. Personally, I think given how far the market fell, it is likely that allowing the Citi's, the AIG's and some other financial institutions to fail on their own would likely have resulted in no worse declines in the stock market and probably no worse systemic shock to the financial system either, so these moves have probably not been necessary in actuality, nor did they prevent much of anything in the end result. I think it would probably be ok to continue to let the most struggling banks die out even now, and I am willing to suck up the near term pain, including further market losses, more economic deterioration and likely significantly more job losses in the near future, in an attempt to simply stop printing more and more money and rewarding the bad acts of these Wall Street jackasses who can't even stop paying themselves million-dollar bonuses and buying six-figure area rugs for their offices, even when on the dole from the public.

But putting all that aside, once we accept the Obama plan to shore up his own legacy by speeding up that process by actively taking those bad assets off the books of the biggest banks, I have to say that I think the Geithner plan is a good one, at least in theory. And if you read here with any frequency then you know I have not been a big fan of Geithner so far, but in this case I think he's hit the mark with this public-private investment idea. The whole reason the first attempt at such a plan to buy banks' bad assets by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was scrapped in favor of direct equity investments in the banks is that the government could not figure out how to properly value those assets when making the purchases. Value them at their values as currently marked on the banks' books, and we would be grossly overpaying for those bad loans, thereby ensuring that the government, and therefore we taxpayers, take a huge bath on the deal. Value them at their current market values, however, and most of the banks in the country would instantly be insolvent because the losses recognized on those sales to the government would have completely wiped out the already weakened capital position these banks are currently faced with.

Hank Paulson and his team quickly decided that they simply did not feel like dealing with this whole issue of valuation of banks' bad assets, so they decided instead late in 2008 to invest directly in preferred stock of the banks in exchange for billions of dollars of cash from the original tranche of last year's TARP plan. The problem with this, it turns out, was that the banks did not use those extra billions to ease up the credit markets at all. Instead, they used it to finance acquisitions of other healthy banks, to pay dividends, to pay bonuses to their employees, and most of all, to hoard the cash. They hoarded it because they are still sitting there, looking at the many many billions of dollars of crappy loans on their books, and knowing that there is the potential for still many tens of billions, and in some cases hundreds of billions, of dollars in writedowns coming on those asset portfolios. I mean, even $25 - $50 billion in direct investments in companies like Citigroup and Bank of America did very little to offset the potentially $200-$300 billion of bad assets held by the country's largest banks. And that is where we cue Mr. Geithner's new plan.

So the purchase of direct stakes in the banks in exchange for cash was not nearly sufficient to get credit flowing again through these financial institutions, in no small part due to the massive amounts of troubled assets still sitting on the banks' books. Geithner's new plan is a bold, innovative assault launched directly at the root of that problem. Geithner is tackling the valuation issue head-on, proposing that the government partner with private sector entities -- large asset managers, hedge funds, pension funds and other similar private enterprises -- in purchasing pools of loans from banks and prices determined by the market for those private enterprises. So no longer will the government be forced to decide what value to pay to take the bad loans off of the banks' books; now, the most accurate and fair system we know of here in America -- the free market -- will determine that value. The hedge funds and asset managers simply will not participate in any deal that involves overpaying for the assets, because they are in it to make a buck after all, and the government will simply go along with whatever price is established by the free market negotiations between the parties. Geithner shrewdly has included as a key part of his plan that the government itself will provide the financing for the purchases, in addition to participating itself as a co-investor with its own new funds, which also eliminates perhaps the other biggest problem with banks liquidating these assets themselves -- with credit so frozen right now, no one has been willing to finance purchases of risky, unknown loan pools from crumbling financial giants. Now, with the government stepping in to not only provide its own money to invest in these assets, but also loaning the required funds to the private sector to entice them to be involved, the two main barriers to the process of actually purchasing our banks' troubled assets should be eliminated.

I think it is a foregone conclusion that the Geithner plan will create a market for banks' bad assets, something that basically has not existed for almost two years since the credit crisis first took hold after a wave of defaults in the subprime mortgage market. Although there is always the possibility that private equity will not be interested in buying this distressed debt from banks, in reality the availability of funds from the government at reasonable interest rates should combine with the significantly cheap valuations for such debt in the current conditions to create real interest from several interested parties. Involving the private sector is in my view a stroke of genius that can really act to create a market -- and potentially an active one -- for an entire class of assets that have been more or less unsellable for the past couple of years, and getting those assets moving off of our banks' books should eliminate one more big impediment to getting the banks loaning again to help the economy to grow.

There are two issues I see with the revised bank bailout plan, either or both of which could prove to be significant. The first is the simple fact that, even with much of their bad assets removed from their books, banks are still not likely to resume lending at a pace anywhere near what was being done previously. The bottom line is, banks got absolutely burned by loaning to and investing in many, many assets which were too risky for what the banks should have been doing at the time. Mortgages were made to people who could never reasonably expect to afford the payments unless the values of their homes increased linearly literally for ever. Loans were securitized and sold in packages without the seller, or more importantly even the buyer, really knowing what was in them and how likely the component loans were to be repaid. This behavior has been significantly reeled in by the banks over the past year or more, and there is not appetite right now to revert back to that way going forward, which I think is a good thing. But the bottom line is that in the current economy, with housing prices still dropping well into the double-digits in percentage terms annually, and with economic growth prospects dubious at best, the banks are not going to start throwing money around again anytime soon, even if the risk they face from writedowns of troubled assets is significantly diminished by the new Geithner bailout plan.

The other issue I have is potentially more serious, and it's something that I fully expect we will be seeing soon, probably more likely sooner rather than later. The Geithner plan does nothing to guarantee any particular level of pricing for purchases of bank assets, nor should it. It simply guarantees that financing will be available at reasonable interest rates -- a rare commodity right now to be sure -- and works to create a market at whatever price the market will bear for such assets. Whatever the difference is between the price of an actual sale of a pool of loans, and the price that pool of loans is currently held at on the bank's books, will be a loss and will have to be recorded as such and charged against the bank's existing excess capital. The problem we are going to see, and again my guess is very soon, is that it won't be long before one of these big banks comes to Geithner and says "Mr. Secretary, at the price the private investors are willing to pay me for my assets, I can only sell them $40 billion of my $200 billion loan pool before I am wiped out and will need substantial additional equity in order to continue to survive." This I think is likely to happen with most of the large banks in this country today, as a matter of fact. So I think it is highly likely that Secretary Geithner will soon be grappling with whether or not to contribute significantly more capital to the nation's biggest, and most injured, banks' current capital reserves, a move that is likely to be politically difficult to secure and even more unpopular with the public. It is likely that the size of the revised Obama-Geithner bank bailout will swell to well over a trillion dollars before all of these extra capital infusions are going to be fully worked out.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

March Madness, Monday Update

Well the first weekend of the Madness that is March has come and gone, and what a first weekend it was. As I said last week, there really is nothing to compare these first few days of the NCAA basketball tournament to, with 32 games on Thursday/Friday and then another 16 over the weekend. There is just important, interesting, emotional basketball being played all over the country basically all day long, and as an avid sports fan, I have to say it's pretty effin' awesome.

So what did we learn over the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament so far? First and foremost, we learned I think that the Big East really is That Good. This shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone, but right here a week ago I complained that the Selection Committee took a supposedly unbiased look at all the power conferences, and came up with 7 entrants from the Big East, 7 from the ACC, 7 from the Big Ten and 6 more from the Pac-10, with the latter two conferences having indisputably down years and each lacking any serious threat at the top of the national rankings. Although the ACC lacked any real depth, at least they had stalwarts Duke and UNC, plus Wake and Clemson, to go along with the three crappy teams they somehow got in to the Big Dance here in 2009.

But the Big East really flexed its muscle this weekend, you have to admit that, going 6-1 in the first round of the tournament, and 5-1 in the second, as only West Virginia lost its opener and Marquette fell in a tough battle on Sunday by four points to Missouri. For the first time in history, the Sweet 16 contains five teams from one conference, with #1 seeds Louisville, UConn and Pitt joining #3 seeds Villanova and Syracuse in comprising nearly a third of the remaining 16 teams in the field. I think I recall four Sweet 16 teams from the Big East or the ACC before, but five I know has never happened before, so in that sense we are looking at conference domination of historical proportions here. Meanwhile, the ACC and its 7 teams ended up 5-5 over the weekend as compared to the Big East's 11-2, with only Duke and Carolina remaining the Sweet 16. The Big 10 went 5-6 in the first two rounds, sending just Michigan State and Purdue, its top two teams, to the Sweet 16, and the Pac-10, ironically enough, has only Arizona, who indisputably did not even belong in the tournament, remaining as its lone representative heading to Round 3 this coming weekend after that conference ended the first two rounds at a 5-6 clip as well.

So here's your total breakdown of the big conferences so far through two rounds in the 2009 NCAA tournament:

Big East: 11-2 (5 teams in Sweet 16)
Big 12: 9-2 (3 teams in Sweet 16)
ACC: 5-5 (2 teams in Sweet 16)
Big Ten: 5-6 (2 teams in Sweet 16)
Pac-10: 5-7 (1 team in Sweet 16)
SEC: 1-3 (0 teams in Sweet 16)

The remaining three Sweet 16 teams are #4 Gonzaga out of the West Coast, who played probably the game of the tournament so far in beating Western Kentucky on a last-second (literally) layup in the Round of 32, #4 seeded Xavier out of the Atlantic 10, and of course #2 seed Memphis from Conference USA who looked solid through two games so far this past weekend.

Some random thoughts on the tournament so far:

1. UConn looked as good as anybody in the field in blowing out its first two opponents in the tournament, although one can't be thrilled with coach Calhoun being forced to miss a game due to unspecified "illness" for the second time this season. The point guard was back on the court for their second game this weekend, and looked quite good overall I would say, after getting some early jitters out in his first appearance on the court in nearly two weeks.

2. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that, since Arizona lasted through two rounds, they obviously "deserved" to be the field of 65. They didn't, and their success is not really relevant to the point. The Wildcats beat up on a Utah team that played uncharacteristically sloppy ball on Thursday, and then they had the fortune of facing #13 seed Cleveland State in the second round after they upset overrated ACC heavy Wake Forest in the first round, the highest seed to fall overall in the event. I'm not taking anything away from Arizona who has obviously earned their right to be in the Sweet 16 at this point after being outright gifted a berth in the Big Dance, but so they beat Utah and Cleveland State. That could easily be St. Mary's, or Providence, in that spot, and both of those teams surely deserved the chance moreso than Arizona. So I don't care how well the Wildcats have played so far. Based just on logic, there is not an actual relation between the play of one team and their right to be there in the first place. Someone else should have been given that chance, and could certainly have had the same success as Zona but from a much more deserving team.

3. This marks the second straight year where lots of chalk has made it through to the Round of 16. In fact, this is the first time in at least 30-some years that all four of the #1 seeds, #2 seeds and #3 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16. If you add up the seeds of all the Sweet 16 teams, that total number is 49, which is the lowest total seeding for a Sweet 16 in history. We've got seeds 1 through 4 in the East, and again 1 through 4 in the South, while the Midwest four Sweet 16 teams include seeds 1, 2, 3 and Arizona at #12, and the East features #1, #2, #3 and #5 in Purdue, who outlasted a ferocious rally from Pac-10 best Washington to hold on to nab the final spot in that region.

4. My bracket is smack in the middle of the pack in the pools I have entered it, as my penchant for picking at least some upsets this year has cost me given the chalk-walk described above, but at least my focus on the Big East and the strong ACC teams helped me to nab 12 out of 16 Sweet 16 teams. But in a year of this much chalk, 12 of 16 isn't even close to cutting it, and in the end has me lounging just below the midpoint in most of my pools. In fact, my bigger issue is that I've already lost two of my Elite 8 teams, as West Virginia's first-round defeat and Arizona State's loss on Sunday leave me with only 6 candidates left to make some noise in the Big Dance, although all of my Final Four teams still remain alive and are playing fairly well.

5. As far as the #1 seeds, I thought UConn looked the best as I mentioned above, although I read this weekend that of the three teams in history that averaged a wider margin of victory through their first two March Madness games than UConn did last week, one of them lost in the Elite 8, and the other two failed to win their Sweet 16 game. But UConn overall looked great. Louisville looked a bit shaky at times, going down 12 early to Siena and actually being behind by four points with less than 10 to play, but then they put on the exact type of run that the #1 team in the country is used to doing and ended up winning that game by a comfortable margin. Overall they've done roughly what I expected them to and have not seen anything too concerning. Pitt, however, has concerned me a little, having trouble with both East Tennessee State and Oklahoma State before winning both games, but I continue to pick them as probably the first #1 seed to fall. Carolina in the South absolutely crushed Radford in Round 1, but then allowed LSU to claw their way back into the second half of their game on Sunday, ceding a four-point lead before putting on one of their famous runs to seal the victory.

In all, it was a great 48 games over four days, and I look forward the next 12 games this weekend and then the Final Four in lovely Detroit in a couple of weeks. Oh, and F Syracuse!

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Bumbling of the Crisis

What a nice man huh? The champion of the little guy. Going on late-night TV in the midst of the AIG crisis and ragging on the Special Olympics, out of nowhere.

Now everyone go back to your little blogs and write the post you would have written if this was George W. Bush and not Barack Obama doing the talking.

We're coming up on two months in office, and in two months President Obama has presided over a continually shrinking economy, the largest spending package in history and the most unbalanced budget of all time (for any country), a stock market that dropped some 25% in his first six weeks in office, and a response to the financial crisis -- at AIG, the major investment banks and around the world -- that has been as bad as anything I saw happen during the previous administration's (lack of) reaction to the massive problems going on all around them. Pretty soon we're going to be at those crucial "first 100 days" of his term, when people are going to start taking an unabashed look at the state of the union today as compared to three months earlier, and there is little doubt that things are worse today than in mid-January.

What concerns me most about Obama, Geithner, Summers and Bernanke is the totally mixed messages they send almost daily with their words and often strangely and counterproductively inconsistent actions in response to the still growing financial turmoil around the globe. The President talks so much about "the age of irresponsibility" that prevailed during the previous administration -- he is very much correct in that assessment btw -- so one would expect and hope for policies that truly encourage Americans to stop spending beyond their means, running up massive debts, taking on obligations they could never reasonably hope to afford, and just generally changing our attitudes about saving vs. spending over the long run. Instead, the President steps in with his $850 billion "financial stimulus" package, in effect becoming the "consumer of last resort" by committing to spend all that money since it is money that the people of this country won't be spending due to the slowdown in the economy, job losses, increased foreclosures, plunging housing prices, and the list goes on and on. Then it's $50 billion or more to bail out people who purchased homes that they can't afford. Now the Obama Fed announces this week that it will buy $300 billion of U.S. treasury bonds over the next six months -- printing money, this is, make no mistake about it, and Bernanke and Obama would not deny that if asked -- printing $300 billion of new money to flood the system with. It is once again an attempt not to wane Americans from the ultra-consumerist high-money-flow habit that led to all of this in the first place during the very "age of irresponsibility" that the President talks about so much in his public speeches, but rather to artificially extend that very practice, at the direct cost of us, our children and our children's children.

And Treasury Secretary and public tax avoider Tim Geithner is right at the heart of all the inconsistency in the new administration as well. All the furor you're hearing about this week regarding former insurance titan AIG, it all goes directly back to Geithner and everyone knows it. AIG paying $165 million of their bailout money in bonuses to AIG's Financial Products division execs that caused all the troubles with the mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps in the first place? Tim Geithner knew about it, and he specifically approved it, despite his attempts this week to express mild outrage at the news. As head of the New York Fed prior to finally paying the back taxes he's owed since 2000 and becoming Treasury Secretary, Geithner oversaw the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail in mid-September 2008, and was a primary architect of the AIG bailout(s) later that same month and into this year, and he understood fully the bonuses issue and specifically approved them being paid before all the recent anger and disbelief over them started to build.

Geithner was also very much involved with his predecessor and former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson in the decision to hand over $180 billion of taxpayer cash to AIG over a four-month period to keep the company afloat, knowing full well that over $100 billion of that money was going directly to the largest investment banks in the world today, many of them outside of the U.S. By far the largest beneficiary of this gift cash from the government, using AIG as a conduit? Goldman Sachs, who got more than $12 billion of cash from AIG, directly after the government provided that cash to AIG expressly for the purpose of making whole its counterparties. The combination of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America received 12 billion in government cash from AIG, Citigroup $2.3 billion and Wachovia $1.5 billion. This, my friends, is what I like to call a "stealth bailout", just as the Obama-Geithner plan has become to "stealth nationalize" the largest financial institutions like Citi which is now proposed to be 36% owned by the government. Geither and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson worked out a plan to give $10 billion cash to Goldman, Merrill, Citi and many other large banks like them, and then they knowingly used AIG to pump several billion dollars more of bailout cash into those very same coffers, yet by using AIG as a conduit, they could hide their true intentions from the American people. Not to mention the $8 billion of U.S. taxpayer money that went directly through AIG to U.K.-based Barclays, or $6.4 billion to Germany's Deutsche Bank, or over $5 billion to France's BNP Paribas. Did you know we were bailing out out other countries' banks too?! Of course you didn't, that was exactly Geithner and Paulson's point. Way to effing go, guys.

On top of all that, there is a major, and very worrisome in my view, inconsistency with the Obama/Geither/Bernanke approach to the entire financial crisis at this point in time. It is an undisputed fact that right now the financial institutions in this country are weak, at least by historical terms. Some of them have failed (Lehman, Indymac and several others), many have essentially failed but then been bailed out by the government for pennies on the dollar at the last minute (Bear Stearns, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Merrill, WaMu, Wachovia, Citi, Bank of America and, again, many many others), and others are simply teetering with their stocks at multi-year lows and waiting for some direction (basically everyone else). Many well-known scholars and economic participants have stated openly their belief that the entire financial system in our country is insolvent, and that basically every bank in the country is under water due to exposure to mortgage-backed and other complex financial instruments in illiquid markets. Our banks need excess capital, which Treasury Secretary Geithner himself estimated at over $1 trillion in needs just last month, and we want to help them to get it by using Geithner's no-details revised bank bailout plan to use public and private funds to purchase the bad assets off of the banks' books in exchange for cold, hard cash.

And yet, through all this, Geithner, Bernanke and especially President Obama insist that the banks must increase their lending. The President has repeatedly expressed outrage that the banks are taking government (taxpayer) funds and then hoarding it, using it to pay bonuses that the bankers who created the original TARP plan did not prevent them from doing, instead of lending it out and making funds available to spur economic expansion and innovation. Now part of the new Geithner plan is that they are "stress-testing" all the nation's major banks as part of the new bailout process. Think about what that means for a minute. It's not like stress-testing the banks means we put the company on a treadmill and attach diodes to its head and abdomen and check it out when its heartrate gets moving. Instead, they are reviewing all of the bank's capital and asset ratios, and subjecting them to models predicting further financial deterioration and prolonged economic weakness, and seeing where those ratios go, how safe the banks will be under circumstances of economic duress. These are mathematical ratios, nothing more, generally relating to how much capital or assets the bank has on its books, compared to its liabilities. The issue I have is what message are Obama and Geithner trying to send to the banks, when they push push push on them to lend, and at the same time impose ratio-based stress tests on them as a part of the process to ensure all the banks get access to the capital they need to be effectively shored up? Forcing the banks to undergo stress tests will undoubtedly influence -- and has already influenced -- the banks to hoard their cash, to try to make the numerators of those asset and capital ratios being tested look as strong as possible, because one of the very few details we have gotten out of Geithner on his new bank bailout plan is that he only plans to provide more free taxpayer money to the banks that are strong enough to survive if they get it.

So on the one hand you're telling these banks to lend lend lend, get the economy going, we can't have real economic recovery in this country until the banks loosen up the money supply again (a very true statement by the way). But with all the losses still slated to come down the pike for the banks in terms of writedowns and bad assets, the banks desperately need to hold on to what capital they have and in fact have to increase that capital, and we should not be encouraging anything other than that. What's more, just the specter of the bank stress tests, let alone the reality of them, very clearly incentivizes these banks to hold on to their cash. A big bank like Citi, Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, these guys would be crazy to be lending out money right now, if they're afraid that lack of capital on their books would cause them to fail a totally not-defined stress test being conducted by Treasury over the coming months to see if they are healthy enough to be kept afloat or instead should be shut down. Think about it -- if you're the CEO of one of those banks, what are you doing right now? Loaning money out of your historically-depleted capital reserves to any shlub who comes in the door with a business idea? Financing the short-term operations of a longtime corporate client of yours experiencing major financial distress due to the shrinking global economy? Or hoarding your cash, making those financial ratios look as strong as possible for when Geithner and his tax-avoiding friends come along to review your bank's financial numbers?

Me too. And that's exactly my problem with the whole mess. You want to know why the markets are languishing so much that we have to be content with a 15% rally up to Dow 7500? Because the people who understand this stuff know. They know that the current administration is all backwards with the entire financial bailout concept. They don't have a clue what started it, and they don't have any more a clue how to finish it. So far, the best plan they've come up with -- providing very little details at that -- has been to create incentives for banks to hoard their cash while proclaiming that they should be lending it out, and all the while just printing billions and billions and billions -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions -- of freshly minted dollars into the economy to artificially make it seem like there is far more economic activity than there would otherwise naturally be. And the thing is...that idea simply won't work from an economic perspective. The banks won't lend (they're not), and the real economy won't pick up (it's not). You can artificially stimulate the economy and stem the bleeding for a while, but that's all you're doing, and it's all artificial. You force the banks not to lend, and you increase taxes on the wealthy, and on small business, and you fail to promote more sensible spending and saving practices in our country when you have the perfect opportunity to do so, and it sounds to me like a recipe for a longer-lasting downturn that might otherwise be necessary.

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The Madness is Upon Us

Man, is there anything better than this day, all across the country? I mean, March Madness is the event that attracts the casual, or as I like to describe them, the "female" fan more than any other sporting event we got, except for perhaps the Superbowl, which for a one-time event has the most cache among the chicks of the country I would think. But pretty much everyone loves March Madness, from the old dude in the mailroom in the basement of my office building, to Hammer Wife who couldn't tell you the difference between a bounce pass and a free throw, and even to the younger generation who fill out brackets for their parents' office pools, etc. And these first couple of days, they just can't be beat in terms of non-stop excitement, can they? 16 awesome games a day for Thursday and Friday....damn. If ever there was a day that makes me jealous of those among you who get to live in Las Vegas year-round, this is the day.

I actually like my brackets this year, moreso than in most years. Unlike in most years, this year I found myself going with a general theme, whether I did so consciously or not, of consistently picking winners from those teams that have played the most other strong competition throughout this entire season. This means focusing primarily on the Big East and the ACC teams who have performed the best over a long schedule riddled with quality competition, while generally trying to avoid the Big 10 and Pac-10 teams that in some cases didn't face a truly great opponent all season long. In the Midwest Regional, I like most of the chalk, with Louisville, Wake Forest and the always excellently-coached Michigan State making my Sweet 16, but I'm throwing in a gritty West Virginia team to upset a very young Kansas squad in the Round of 32, as WVU always seems to be hanging around after a game or two in the tournament lately, don't they? In fact, I'm picking WVU to upset Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and make a surprise appearance in the Elite 8, where I have them squaring off with conference foe Louisville, who is my pick to Advance to the final four from this regional.

In the West, I am all chalk as far the Sweet 16 goes, with the top 4 seeds all advancing despite my picking a few upsets in the Round of 64 (most notably UNI as a 12 seed to take down a typically overrated Purdue squad). I'm not a huge Missouri fan, but they're a good little team and I opted to go with them over Marquette in the second round due to Marquette's injury issues at this point in the season. Even though I have my hesitations about both UConn and Memphis, I ended up going with both of them to advance to the Elite 8, probably my favorite matchup in that round if all goes as planned, and I have decided grudgingly to go with Memphis to reach the Final Four out of that bracket. I have a ton of respect for John Calipari and what he has managed to do in his career coaching NCAA basketball. First building an abysmal UMASS program into constant domination, and now doing the same thing with a beaten-down program in Memphis State some years ago, Calipari has clearly earned the respect of all of his peers and in my view has earned my nod in the Elite 8 over UConn, which I am picking mainly due to Memphis's overpowering defense, which I believe is one of the very best in the country heading into the Big Dance.

Up in the East Regional, I once again went with chalk to the Sweet 16, seeds 1 through 4, although again I am picking some upsets in the earlier rounds to go against this trend. I originally had Duke losing to Texas in the Round of 32, and then I switched that but had them losing to Villanova in the Sweet 16, but the more I think about it, the more props I give to Duke for putting together a pretty good lil' season this year, in particular since making a switch among their starters and especially with Henderson playing so big and strong around the basket for the perennially soft team, so I actually think they will beat Villanova in the Sweet 16 and reach the Elite 8 in one of the biggest games for that program in several years. That game, however, will not be a matchup with regional #1 seed Pittsburgh, however, as I am making my first stupid decently big upset call in picking Xavier, a good little team, to take down Pitt. I simply do not think Pitt has the offensive guard play nor the depth to win six straight games in this thing, and since I can't bring myself to pick Duke to beat them, I opted to go with Xavier, which will bring a 4-seed to play against Duke for the right to make the final 4, where I think Duke will return in early April this year.

Lastly, in the South, I picked 1 seed Carolina to win easily to the Sweet 16, facing off against Gonzaga who I believe will be able get by either winner of the Western Kentucky - Illinois game, where I am picking the Hilltoppers after Illinois played an uninspired season in the highly uninspiring Big Ten this year. On the bottom half of that bracket, I like Oklahoma and their player of the year candidate Griffin, but the one big exception to my general theme is that, as a big-time Georgetown guy, I simply cannot bring myself to pick the Syracuse Orange to make the Sweet 16, even as a 3 seed. Instead I am going with Arizona State, my one and only Pac-10 team I think is worth anything in this year's tournament, to upset the Cuse in the Round of 32 and reach the Sweet 16 as a 6 seed. In the end, I think Carolina beats down on an overmatched Gonzaga squad, and I'm going again with ASU to best Oklahoma, who was very inconsistent this year, to reach the Elite 8 before losing to Carolina who really should walk through this bracket into the Final 4.

So my Final 4 is really fun, with Louisville facing Memphis on the one side, and an awesome Duke-Carolina showdown on the other side. After beating Duke twice during the regular season this year, I think the Tar Heels ought to stick it to Duke again in the tournament, advancing to the finals where I have them facing Louisville. I love John Calipari's Memphis team, especially on defense, but I just can't find a way to pick against Louisville, the team that won the Big East regular season and then won the Big East tournament as well, the hottest team in the country and totally peaking at the best possible time.

A Louisville - Carolina final will surely be a spectacle, featuring two high-profile programs with rich basketball tradition, and two former national champion coaches with plenty of experience in big games and in March Madness pressure. In the end, following the same logic as above, I just can't find a reason to get away from Louisville as my national champion. Louisville has been so amazingly strong down the stretch, they have an awesome, proven coach, and Carolina has had more than one or two moments of real inconsistency this season. I just think the Cardinals have the best squad in the country this season, in particular if their guards are playing well. The Big East schedule will serve Louisville very well this year, having played several games against top-5 and top-15 opponents all season long, and we all know how Roy Williams like to F up in the tournament. So I'm going with the Cardinals of Louisville, and Rick Pitino, to hoist the trophy when all is said and done in a few weeks in the pit of hell Detroit.

Anybody dare to challenge any of these immutable picks?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Movies of the 80s

About a week ago, moviefone put out its list of the top movies of the 1980s. Now I don't know exactly what criteria they claim to have used for these ratings, but in some ways it's almost like this list is designed to antagonize me. I mean, Aliens at #10, but no Alien? The Empire Strikes Back at #4, but no Return of the Jedi? This is Spinal Tap as the 5th greatest movie of the 80s? Blue Velvet huh? Is that even a real movie?

Moviefone's list is the top 40 movies of the period from 1980-1989, and they managed to get most of the decade's best flicks, albeit in the wrong order. And there were some glaring exceptions from their list, such as Return of the Jedi, films that were completely omitted from the top 40 even though they are easily within the best handful of movies made at the time. I mean, how does Ferris Bueller's Day Off not even make the top 40? That's like ranking the movies of the 1990s and leaving off The Matrix for crying out loud. No Ferris Bueller, but Caddyshack and Stripes and Spinal Tap are all firmly entrenched in the top 20? Puh-lease guys, you totally missed the boat on the comedy side, not to mention also omitting The Naked Gun, Fletch and Airplane from the top 40 list entirely in this genre.

But moviefone's screwups with this list extend far beyond just comedy flicks. In the action/thriller genre, they did a great job I think with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I'll buy Blade Runner -- the forefather of most modern science fiction movies today -- and The Empire Strikes Back certainly belongs near the top as well, but these clowns have Back to the Future -- easily one of the ten best movies of the decade -- down at #21, and friggin E.T. in at 20. Huh? When you're putting science fiction movies all over the list, but you don't get to E.T. until #20, you know you've screwed up big time. I mean, do you remember what a shock to the system E.T. was when it came out in theaters? That's really the movie that put Steven Speilberg into eternal fame and fortune forever. After E.T., the man could do no wrong. #20 for E.T.? I think not. And what's with Die Hard all the way down at #28? Tell me when that shit is on you don't stop the channel surfing and settle in for some fine action/adventure viewing, no matter where in the movie it is. #28 my foot.

Putting aside the sappy crap in the top 10, the creators of moviefone's list made some of their most glaring errors in the movies that they left off entirely from the top 40, including some of the best sequels, sports movies and other action and comedy films of my childhood without a doubt. I mean, what top 10 movies of the 80s list is complete without Superman II on there, right? And how do they forget Ricardo Montaban in all his glory in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? What about Rocky III, with Mr. T.? You know, where Rocky loses the eye of the tiger and gets beat down on by Clubber Lang? "My prediction? Pain!" Not even in the top 40, any of those three famous sequels? Give me a break. And no Top Gun? I'm not saying this has to be top 10, but not even top 40, while movies like The Verdict and Blood Simple are on the list? Please. And one often-overlooked film that is easily in the top 40 movies of the 1980s in my book has got to be Robert Redford's greatest work, The Natural. Go ahead, tell me you didn't love The Natural, I dare you.

In all, moviefone did a decent job in compiling most of the best movies of the 1980s on their list, but they got the order all wrong, and they consistently downgraded some types of movies while overrating others, in particular some of the sappier, more emotional stuff that is typically the fodder of the female-types out there, but which lord knows a random sampling of 30- and 40-somethings would never include in their list of top ten 80s movies. But in doing so, moviefone managed to fail to make any mention at all of some of the very greatest movies of the entire period. Me? I'll take Superman II or The Natural over most of the films on moviefone's list. And I'll watch Die Hard over Sophie's Choice any day of the week.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Donkin on a Monday

Wow, boredom set in in an awful hurry for me in the BBT4. This was even quicker than in previous series. With the attendance at the weekly tournaments dropping noticeably here in just the early third week of the 13-week challenge, I must say that without even realizing it, I am just part of the herd losing interest in the series, and in actually trying to play well when I do sit down to play.

Of course it didn't help that I got riversucked out of four sitngos in under and hour on Monday night heading into the Riverchasers tournament. I stopped playing the sngs when I got a bit short in one ring sng, picked up KQ in the small blind and raised two preflop limpers. To my mild surprise, both called. When the flop came K22, I pushed my last chips in on the flop on an overbet to the pot, knowing this would appear like I was pushing short when weak. Again, to my amazement, the first player called, the second pushed allin, and the first insta-called. When the first guy flipped up KK for the flopped overboat, I just chuckled. I did not even see the other guy turn over his pocket 2s for the flopped quads vs. flopped overboat until after the hand was over and I was eliminated, when I noticed all the chips in the other guy's pile and wanted to replay the hand to see what had happened. A good rule of thumb I try to live by is when I've been riversucked four times and then run KQ on a shrot stack and on a K22 flop into KK and 22, it's time to hang 'em up.

By this point, unfortunately, the Riverchasers had already started, and I was feelin' tilty. I quickly dropped down to around 2500 chips from the starting stack of 3000 on donkish stabs at pots with nothing and on silly resteals for little chips early. Basically I was pissed off and wasn't into the tournament and thus was just trying to push shitty cards and steal somebody's stack on a suckout or something. Stoopid. Eventually I allin overbluffed on the river against someone for about 4 times the current pot, and got called down instantly by a pocket pair below top pair. That one definitely surprised me, but I guess I just have to be happy with someone making a play that I will double up on 98% of the time. It was actually the second time I had been called down on a big bet with nothing in my short time in the Riverchasers on Monday, both times of course with me hardcore bluffing with nothing. I guess I was giving off the vibe that I was feeling inside -- that I should not have been playing, that I did not want to be playing, and that I was just going to make stoopid bets and raises with no rhyme, no reason, and no plan for the hands I got involved in. That worked about as well as you might expect from reading that description.

Needless to say, I didn't last long and I didn't stick around any longer than I had to on the night. After making the points and nearly final tabling the first three events of the BBT4, I stopped giving a crap any more than I did right before the series started, and it severely shows in my play. In my last four BBT tournaments, no money, no final tables, no points, no good play at all. Well, except for the Mookie last week when I got two-outered after the flop by someone who spent the entire previous week bitching in his blog about how unlucky he is and how great everyone else runs. Running bad at this game just fucking blows.

It's gonna be at least a few days before I get the bitter taste of last night out of my mouth. You might want to call me down in the HORSE tonight in the skillz series, because I'm going to be calling and betting with absolute shit and just hoping to donk somebody out early. Bitches.

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March Madness is Here

Well, what I was saying could happen on Friday actually happened over the weekend -- for the first time since the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams, we have three of the four #1 seeds coming from the same conference, in this case the Big East. Although this is hard to swallow for many longtime college basketball fans out there, three Big East teams are firmly entrenched in the top 5 of the rankings, and the Big East in general this year is pretty widely accepted as being the greatest conference of all time in college basketball, with 6 teams in the top 20 at season's end, and with the conference having received three #1 seeds and another two #3 seeds, indicating roughly that 5 of the nation's top 12 squads originate from the conference. So even though three #1 seeds from one conference rubs some people the wrong way, I actually think it is very defensible given the way this year broke out and, more specifically, the kind of competition faced by these best of the best Big East teams all through the 2008-2009 season thus far.

Looking beyond the top seeds, the common wisdom here today seems to be that the Selection Committee for the NCAA tournament did a pretty unassailable job in choosing the teams and their respective seedings for this year's March Madness tournament. I, however, think they made some egregious errors, some general and some more specific to individual teams or leagues.

First and foremost, talking generally here, the Selection Committee in its infinite wisdom, awarded bids to seven teams from the Big East, seven from the Big 10, seven from the ACC and six from the Pac-10. This is bad for a number of reasons. First of all, as discussed above the Big East was far and away the best conference of this or any other season, and awarding the same number of tournament bids to all four of the major power conferences this year was a mistake from that front. The ACC is fairly solid near the top with UNC, Duke and Wake Forest, but the middle of that conference drops off dramatically, and in order to get seven ACC teams into the tournament, the Committee had to invite some teams that flat out do not belong (more on that later). Similarly, the Big 10 got at least one if not two or three bids that it simply did not deserve, and the Pac-10 received probably the biggest joke of a bid of any team in this year's tournament, also requiring shenanigans of some kind to find even six Pac-10 teams worthy of playing in the Big Dance this month.

The other general mistake made by the Selection Committee this weekend relates to the above: they completely forsook the mid-major conference in favor of the big power conference teams, even in very dubious situations. The mid-majors are where the teams have come from that have made this tournament so exciting over the past several years -- the Davidsons, the Valparaisos, the George Masons, originally even Gonzaga some years ago -- and as recently as 2004 saw 12 mid-major teams in the 65-team NCAA field, but this year, we're looking at just four at-large bids going to mid-major conference teams. That is a real bummer in general given what I have seen over my lifetime of watching March Madness, and also in terms of some of the specific comparisons to large power conference teams that did manage to find their way into the field.

Which leads to some of the more team-specific issues I have with this year's tournament selections. First, the ACC. The ACC, despite having a down year compared to most other years top-to-bottom, got 6 teams into the Big Dance, the most embarrassing and inexplicable of which was Maryland, who flat out stank this year. Maryland ended the season 7-9 in a weak ACC and 20-13 overall, presumably based almost exclusively on their early-season wins against Michigan State and Duke. But in putting this subpar team into the tournament, and thereby crushing the deserving hopes of several promising mid-major teams, the Committee overlooked Maryland's embarrassing loss to a shitty Georgetown team, 75-48 at a neutral site, as well as losses this season to Morgan State, at Miami and then at Virginia in the last game of the regular season when Maryland knew they needed to beat the abysmal 4-12, 10-18 Cavaliers to reach .500 in a down year in the ACC. They then won two games in the ACC tournament before succumbing to eventual tournament winner Duke, bringing their total conference record this season to 9-10. To think of all the teams that lost bids because of this gift from the Committee, it is just wrong. I mean, I like seeing Gary Williams sweat through his entire suit on the sidelines in a game as much as anyone, but that just does not make sense.

The Big 10 is another conference suffering a major down year -- only Michigan State was ever ranked anywhere near the top 10 through any significant portion of this season -- and yet who somehow managed to nab 7 NCAA tournament bids, many of them quite inexplicable. In a nutshell, the Committee ended up awarding bids to the top 3 teams in the conference, then shutting out the 4th and 5th place Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, and then awarding bids to the #6 Badgers, #7 Golden Gophers and even the #8 Wolverines despite scrooging the 4th and 5th place teams in the conference. Both Ohio State and Penn State, who failed to get bids, ended the season 10-8 in the Big 10 (22-10 and 22-11 overall, respectively), while Wisconsin did manage to sneak in with a 10-8 record despite having literally zero big wins on its entire schedule otherthan a couple of victories over a down Michigan team, a win on the road at NIT-bound Penn State and a win at home against Illinois. Even worse, Minnesota got a bid at 9-9, 22-10, seemingly solely on the strength of a big win over overall #1 seed Louisville a couple of months ago, and despite losing to Northwestern (8-10, 17-13) earlier in the year and especially despite losses at Ohio State, at Penn State, at Michigan, at Illinois, and then again vs. Michigan in going 4-6 in its last 10 games before this weekend. What ever happened to the Committee paying special attention to teams on streaks heading into March Madness, and to teams that can win big games on the road near the end of the season? Oh wait, who just took over as Minnesota's head coach a few years ago? Of that's right, Tubby Smith, a perennial Selection Committee favorite since back in his Kentucky days. So there you go, Minnesota got in because the Committee likes their coach, even though the team did essentially everything within its power to prove that it did not deserve a bid in the final few weeks of the regular season. Even Michigan nabbed a bid to the Big Dance this year, after posting a 9-9 Big 10 record and an embarrassing 20-13 overall, this including losses at Maryland, as well as defeats vs. Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State, at Penn State, at Ohio State, at Iowa (5-13, 15-17) and then again at Wisconsin in going 7-10 in its final 17 games, including 5-5 in its last 10. The Big 10 was probably only truly deserving of three bids this year -- Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois -- and to the extent that one or two more teams were going to get in, allowing squads like Minnesota and Michigan in given their paltry conference record in one of the worst seasons for the Big 10 in recent memory and all of those terrible losses in crunch time in their seasons is just sick and wrong.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the absolute worst example of the Committee catering to a historical favorite like I mentioned above with Tubby Smith -- Arizona. Coming in to this season, the Wildcats had the nation's longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at 24 straight years, and we all saw that streak coming to an end after Arizona lost in the first game of the Pac-10 tournament for the third time this year to rival Arizona State, and then when USC, who would not have made the tournament otherwise, won the automatic bid from the Pac-10 tournament, people who understand shit knew there was no way Arizona could make it as a 6th team from the downtrodden Pac-10. 'Zona finished the year 9-9 in the Pac-10, and 19-13 overall, an abysmal record for any at-large team in any year, good for 6th place overall in their conference. Arizona lost at home against Conference-USA also-ran UAB, at Texas A&M, at UNLV, at Cal, at Stanford (6-12, 18-13), at USC (9-9, 21-12), and the only big wins I see on their schedule are over Gonzaga, and then conference opponents Washington and UCLA, and I already mentioned the three losses to state rival ASU including in the Pac-10 tournament. Even worse than this, the Wildcats lost 5 of their last 6 games heading into Selection Sunday, including a loss to Washington State (8-10, 17-15) during that stretch, as well as the loss in the opening round of the Pac-10 tournament. This team did everything you could possibly ask of them to prove they do not belong in the tournament, and the Committee decided to doff their caps to history and extend 'Zona's consecutive Big Dance streak to 25. Just sad.

As I mentioned, the teams that got the most burnt by the Committee's clear fuckups this year were the mid-major conference teams that in the past few years have gotten the bids and even won some games in the Big Dance. Creighton finished the season 14-4, 26-7 in the Missouri Valley Conference, won by Northern Iowa, whom Creigton beat in addition to sweeping recent March Madness fixture Southern Illinois on the season. Creighton did not have many significant out of conference wins, and losing 73-49 to Illinois State in the MVC tournament surely did not help their case, but if I'm in charge, Creighton is surely going in to the tournament with their #40 RPI ranking over the likes of Maryland, Arizona or Minnesota or Michigan. San Diego State, out of the Mountain West conference, is another mid-major team arguably deserving of an at-large bid, certainly moreso than the last few power conference teams to sneak in to the 65-team field. SDSU was 11-5, 23-9 on the season, including wins against tournament teams Utah (12-4, 23-9) and BYU (12-4, 25-7) plus bubble teams UNM (12-4, 21-11) and UNLV (9-7, 21-10) three separate times, plus an RPI of a whopping #34 in the country. I'll take them over the bottom half of the power conference teams any day of the week. St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference -- Gonzaga's stomping grounds -- is the team probably most often cited as the worst rooking among those teams not to make the Big Dance this year, as Randy Bennett's team missed the tournament despite an RPI of 47 and a final record in the WCC of 10-4, 26-6, even though Maryland's pathetic season left them with an RPI of 55, and Arizona put up a lowly 62 in nabbing their tournament bid.

But the team that I think got rooked most of all by the Selection Committee this weekend is one that you don't even hear mentioned on ESPN or any of the other major sites out there, and that is Big East upstart Providence. Now, as a Georgetown guy, I am no kind of Friars fan, but let's be fair here. PC went 10-8 in the Big East, 19-13 overall. Now I know that 19-13 is no great shakes, but apparently it was great enough to get Arizona into the tournament with a 9-9 record in a conference that couldn't hold a candle to the Big East this season. I'm not one of those guys who believes that a winning record in any major conference should mean an automatic tournament bid -- see my comments on the various Big 10, Pac-10 and ACC tournament teams above -- but in this case, this year, in this season's Big East, in my view anyone who even sniffs a winning record deserves a shot in the Big Dance. And it's not like Providence only beat up on the bad teams in the Big East but lost to every good team it played -- PC posted wins this year against URI (11-5, 22-10), a sweep against Cincinnati, and then in the latter stretch of the season vs #3 seeded Syracuse and then #1 seeded Pittsburgh. How Providence is kept out of the tournament while fonkteams like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Maryland are in is simply beyond me.

All that said, I am seriously looking forward to what is pretty much always the best time of year for any serious sports fan, starting with Thursday's massive 16-game slate where I get to do almost no work. Get those NCAA March Madness On Demand logins working early and often this week!

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