One Good Stock

My Jury Duty Story

The Manhattan Project

One Good Stock

Editor’s Note: Tim Lutts wrote this interesting account of his recent jury duty experience prior to the stock market’s meltdown, but we felt strongly about still sharing it with you today. However, we understand if you just want our latest thinking on the recent financial turmoil, and if you do, we invite you to skip to the bottom section. But save Tim’s story for another day, it’s really worth a read!

It began a couple weeks ago, on one of the hottest days of the year, somewhat before 8:30 a.m., as I locked my iPhone in my car (no cell phones allowed in the courthouse), passed through a metal detector and climbed the stairs to the second floor lobby. That marked the start of Waiting Period #1. I passed the time by watching other prospective jurors arrive, most notably an unusually wide woman who exited the elevator–no stairs for her–and plunked herself down on the bench, gasping for breath. I started the day’s crossword puzzle, which I had photocopied from that morning’s newspaper–the Thursday New York Times, for those of you in the know–and tucked into a book.

Eventually, we were directed to a corridor, and one at a time we entered the court officer’s drab cinderblock room. I gave him my completed questionnaire, and in return received a slip with my juror number on it … #1.

I felt like a winner.

And then it was off to the main waiting area, a pleasant corner room with two windows, cushioned benches, and just enough air conditioning to keep us on the edge of comfort. There were 16 of us–10 women and six men.

The officer came in, welcomed us, and turned on an old TV, which played a video describing the importance of jury duty, as well as how important it was not to talk about–or do outside research on–any case we were on. We all watched intently; Americans are good at watching TV. But soon enough, it was over.

And that marked the start of Waiting Period #2.

Which is when things got interesting.

No, not in an exciting way but in an “interesting” way.

Here we were, 16 adults in a closed room.

Normally, when you have 16 strangers in a room, many will talk on their cell phones, text, check email, etc. But none of us had cell phones! So no one was talking.

I took a walk and when I returned, I chose a bench at the edge of the room, the better to observe my fellow jurors.

I finished my crossword puzzle.

I took a longer walk, out to the lobby and down the stairs … and up again.

I started my book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by the physicist/educator Richard Feynman.

But off and on I was observing my fellow jurors, and after a while, I pulled out my crossword puzzle again, and on the blank backside, began to make notes about them, reasoning that if we did eventually turn into a real jury, these notes of first impressions might prove interesting.

There was the wide woman I mentioned before, dressed in a green top.

There was the woman next to me in a feminine yellow blouse. Her name was Brenda (it was printed on her juror slip which she left on the bench) and she was reading the Bible.

There was the red-haired woman in a blue top reading a Danielle Steel hardcover, with both her purse and a second good-sized bag on the bench beside her.

There was the woman in a black top reading an “Eat, Pray, Love” hardcover by Elizabeth Gilbert.

There was the bleached blonde on the far side of 50 who dressed like she was 20. She had the lifelong smoker’s rasp, the skin of a potato and at one point, she fell off her wedge heels.

There were two women in brown tops, one closer to copper.

There was the woman in a pink top who had smiled at me when we passed in the hallway.

There was the woman in a white blouse reading a hardcover book whose title I couldn’t quite see.

And there was the young woman in a black top with a fat GRE (Graduate Record Exam) study guide who spent more time engaged with a portable electronic device–apparently not a cell phone–than she did studying.

As to the men, there was the tough-looking guy with a crewcut wearing a dark blue Hilton Head T-shirt who had nothing to read. Every time I looked at him, he seemed to be looking at me.

There were two middle-aged men in nearly identical outfits. Jeans, white sneakers and polo shirts–one lime green and one blue–stretched over big bellies. Lime green had a trim white beard, while blue had the biggest belly in the room.

There was the trim young man in a striped dress shirt and new athletic shoes, reading the paperback book, “Raising a Self-Disciplined Child.”

There was the older gentleman in a black polo shirt who completed all the puzzles in his newspaper.

And there was me.

All told, of 16 jurors, seven had brought books, three had brought newspapers, and six had brought nothing to fill their time. Some of them dozed. The tough guy in the Hilton Head T-shirt watched me.

I put away my notes and read some more.

By 10:30 I was halfway through my book

I took another walk, this time, heading through a door to the quiet back stairway. Ran up and down the stairs a couple times, just to get some blood flowing. I even tried hopping up the stairs on one foot … it was really hard. And when I tried to open the door at the top to return to the jury room, I found the door had locked.

I went back down and tried to door to the first floor. It was locked too.

The only door left was the one that led outside. So I looked around, saw no notice of any alarm that might sound if I opened the door … and I opened the door.

Went outside into the brutal heat.

Walked around the corner.

And walked back in the front door and through the metal detector again.

And back to the safety of the jury room.

Brenda and her Bible were gone, and they never reappeared.

But as I was sitting down I looked at the shelf behind me and noticed for the first time … a complete set of books on laws and regulations in Massachusetts! So I pulled out the volume on motor vehicle law–solely because I like cars and I like to learn–and here’s what I learned about where and when motor vehicle insurance provides coverage or doesn’t.

If you’re standing on private property, and are injured by a truck that’s backing up but the majority of which is still on the public road, insurance applies.

If you have an accident on public property where there is no road–you’re driving a truck in the woods, for instance–insurance does not apply.

If your vehicle is involved in an accident while you’re driving on a public road but it leaves the road and strikes a pedestrian on private property, insurance does apply.

If you’re involved in an accident in a public parking area that includes a boat ramp but that does not have any lane markings, insurance does not apply.

These findings, by the way were all from specific cases.

I was enjoying the book.

But then the court officer came in, and told us we were needed. Hurray!

So I put back the book, and we filed into the courtroom. By now it was 12:30, and I assumed we’d get a lunch break soon.

But the judge, a young woman, had other ideas. We stood, raised our right hands, and swore to be fair. And after introducing herself, she laid out the case.

A young man had been charged with drunken driving in May of last year. The judge gave his name, the date of the arrest and the location (Salem), and I filed those mentally, so I could Google it later.

The judge identified the young man, sitting behind a table in the right half of the courtroom. He wasn’t smiling. She identified his lawyer, a young beefy guy sitting next to him. She identified the public prosecutor, a young, ponytailed woman sitting behind a table in the left half of the courtroom and backed by two junior colleagues. And she identified two young muscular Salem policemen sitting in suits and ties in the audience as well as a witness … all depending on us, the jury, to do our job.

The judge asked if we were acquainted with the defendant, or the attorneys, or the other principals, or if we had relationships with organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or Students Against Drunk Driving or any other relationships that might influence our decision in this case.

And when no one answered in the affirmative, she called me, Juror #1, up to a sidebar interview with both lawyers!

She was holding my questionnaire, and she asked again, in a near-whisper, if I had any biases about the case, or there was any reason I might not be fair. I answered in the negative, said I was happy to be there, and she told me to take seat number one, over in the jury box.

So I did. It was a nice cushy seat, well spaced from the five other seats in the jury box, and I had a great view of the proceedings, though I couldn’t quite hear the whispers as the judge and the two attorneys went through the other jurors one by one.

Some, as expected, were excused (some were visibly happy about it), and were told to resume their seats for the time being. Others were chosen. When the six seats were full, the unusually wide woman was in seat #2; she just fit. #3 was the older man who’d completed all the puzzles in his newspaper. #4 and #5 were the two women in brown tops, one closer to copper. And #6 was the young man reading the book on raising a self-disciplined child.

(Of the six prospective men, the three of us chosen had all brought something to keep our brains busy. The three not chosen had not. I calculate the odds of that as one-in-20, or 5%.)

So there we were, six jurors seated in six cushy chairs, the other jurors out in the audience area, the defendant, lawyers, police officers and witness, all ready to get to work (or break for lunch) when the judge said, “Unfortunately, we do not have enough jurors to try this case. Your jury service is now completed, and we will reschedule this case for another day.”

Left unexplained was the question of how many jurors would have been enough. Did they need an alternate or two? And if so, would they not get cushy chairs?

So we left.

And soon after, I Googled the defendant, and found the newspaper account of his arrest, some 14 months before.

Which was interesting, in light of my previous reading, because his “alleged” drunken driving had occurred in a public cemetery! And cemeteries have no marked lanes!

He’d been cited, early one Saturday morning, for drunk driving, speeding, having no license and negligence after he crashed his car into a headstone and damaged it.

Now, I have no idea what the young man’s defense would have been, but it certainly would have been interesting–if we’d actually got to hear facts about the case–if my recently acquired knowledge might have applied.

In my daydreams, I imagine holding my hand up and saying, “Judge, I’ve been reading about some similar cases, and I was just wondering …”

But in reality, all I do is search Google from time to time to see if there’s been a trial and a judgment.

So that’s my jury duty story. It’s not exciting in the traditional sense, but I hope you found it interesting.  And I hope when it’s your turn to serve, you make the most of it. Bring something to read. Learn something. It’s important.

On a lighter note, I mentioned earlier that I was reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Here’s an amusing excerpt, from the early days of the Manhattan Project in 1943, when the 25-year old Feynman and other Princeton physicists were trying to avoid German spies while heading for Los Alamos.

“We were told to be careful–not to buy our train ticket in Princeton, for example, because Princeton was a very small station, and if everybody bought train tickets to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Princeton, there would be some suspicions that something was up. And so everybody bought their tickets somewhere else, except me, because I figured if everybody bought their tickets somewhere else …

“So when I went to the train station and said, “I want to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the man says, “Oh, so all this stuff is for you!” We had been shipping out crates full of counters for weeks and expecting that they didn’t notice the address was Albuquerque. So at least I explained why it was that we were shipping all those crates. I was going out to Albuquerque.”

As to the market, it stinks.

If you want to take the rest of the month off and go fishing, play golf, or read some good books, I understand.

On the other hand, there’s always wisdom to be gained from studying stocks, even in times like the present, when a lot of your assets should be sitting in cash.

Now, human nature says the best way to get rich at times like this is to buy something that’s just fallen a lot, and ride the rebound.  But trusting human nature in the stock market is usually dangerous, and I know from experience that this is an extremely risky gambit; all too often, after you buy that stock, it goes down even more!

My favorite way to hunt at times like this is to look for stocks that are holding up extremely well.  Those are the stocks in which there are very few motivated sellers, stocks that have such support that every share offered is quickly snapped up at current prices. And when the pressure comes off the broad market, those are the stocks most likely to soar!

One acting well today is MasterCard (MA).

You know the business.  It pulled in $6 billion in revenue last year, and 58% of that was from outside the U.S.

It grew revenues 9% last quarter and earnings 24% and analysts are looking for earnings growth of 26% for all of 2011.

And it’s still a rather young stock!

MA began trading in mid-2006, peaked with the broad market at 320 in mid-2007, and bottomed with the broad market late in 2008.

Since then it’s been working its way back to that old high, and for the past month it’s been knocking on the 320 level, trying to break out to new highs. Last Wednesday, it did break out after issuing an excellent earnings report, but got dragged down by the market.  Still, the stock is within spitting distance of new highs, and I think it’s only a matter of time.

Supporting this reasoning is the fact the stock is a far better value now than it was when it first fit this level, four years ago! Earnings in 2010 were up 146% from 2007 and this year they’ll be higher still.

Just last month, Roy Ward, editor of Cabot Benjamin Graham Value Letter, added MA to his Wise Owl Portfolio.  His Maximum Buy Price is 306; buying under that level gets you a Margin of Safety.  And his Minimum Sell Price is 435.

To stay informed about MasterCard, and to get more smart value investing ideas, click here.

Yours in pursuit of wisdom and wealth,

Timothy Lutts
Publisher
Cabot Wealth Advisory

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