RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE SPEAKS ON BULLS AND HOGS
My long-time friend Bob Winship and I are sitting on Mr. Pate’s front porch in Segovia, about an hour-and-a-half west of San Antonio. watching the sun do its thing yet again, dropping down over the canyon wall to the west and letting the valley fill slowly with the soft purple of night. Soon it will be level full, brimming like a cup, time for us to head back to Winship’s Rock Pile Ranch and one of Shirley’s world-class casseroles.
Off beyond a thicket of mesquite I can see two young men trying to drive a bull toward the gate that will admit him to Mr. Pate’s cows running back in the brush–the borrowed bull has been brought in to service them. The bull gets to visit several times a year. Mr. Pate says he seems not to mind the short trot from a neighboring ranch across the road.
“You boys be careful now,” the old man yells out. “He gon’ get spooky when you try to run him thoo that gate.”
He turns to us. “Been here Lord only knows how many times–crosses the plywood they lay down on the cattle gap without no more trouble than a sheep, but when they get him to thatere main gate, he starts acting up. Ever time.”
“Maybe he’s just excited,” I say.
“Or too proud to round up the ladies,” Winship puts in. “Thinks they ought to come to him.”
The guys manage to shoo him through without incident and the bull heads off toward the line of hills to the south.
“Got two in heat right now,” Mr. Pate says, “several more due in the next couple of weeks, so the old boy’s over for a real party.”
Winship smiles. “And didn’t even bring flowers. That’s what lack of competition will do for you.”
“Ayup,” the old man says, “and ain’t gotta take’m out to eat neither. Ain’t got to ride’m around town in a fancy car. All he’s gotta do is show up.”
I can’t not get into it. “Probably didn’t even take a shower or brush his teeth.”
We sit there in silence a few minutes. Then I say, “Speaking of bulls and parties, they’re having a ball on Wall Street right now. The Dow was up over two hundred points today. Nasdaq’s headed up.”
Mr. Pate settles back in his chair. “They been partying a lot lately. Which is fine, long as I ain’t got any money on the table.”
“He’s not into stocks right now,” Winship points out. “Says only a fool would be in right now.”
“How’s that, Mr. Pate?”
He looks at me. “Because everything’s overpriced is why. It ain’t one compny in a hunderd right now that has a P/E ratio that looks even half reasonable. Got a national debt that stretches to the moon and back”
I look over at Winship. “Bob, he’s talking national debt and P/E ratios. This man’s a market scholar.”
“No, I ain’t a scholar of nothin’, but I know when something’s too high priced. I mean, a man that seen a house that was three times higher than the market says it ought to be or a car that had a sticker price three times book value would just laugh and walk on. But folks is chasing stocks like there ain’t a book value on’m and like there ain’t no tomar. The little guys are out there jus chunkin’ money into them mutual stock funds, and the managers have got to spend it on stocks, so everbody’s chasing the same flock of geese, and that means that the price keeps going up and up on’m, and the geese is still the same old geese, with the same old meat and feathers, just waddlin’ along gettin’ more expensive ever day.”
“So he’s out completely,” Winship says.
“You bet your sweet aspidistra I am.” The old man’s getting agitated now. “Them damned day traders start everthing early, get the prices goin’ up, the little man joins in a little later and runs the price even higher, then the day traders will sell later in the day or maybe the next day. Then the little man will get scared and sell and drop the price and the day traders will start the whole thing over again. Ain’t nobody complainin’ because the day traders are making a big killing off the little guy but the little guy is makin’ more than he would in money market funds. The guys settin’ on the sidelines get to thinkin’ that maybe they’re missin’ out on somethin’ good, so they finally start kickin’ in and drive the prices even higher.”
“So you’re not running with the bulls?”
He gives me a stern, wise look. “No sir. Not no more than I’d go out and pay half a million dollars for a Ford pickup. Far’s I’m concerned, this market is like a piece of wire that has been stretched and bent and rebent–one of these days it’s gon’ break, sure’s we’re settin’ on this front porch. And I don’t intend to lose a dime when it does. The downside potential is much greater than the upside.”
“Sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, Winship.”
“He probably does.”
“I don’t know whether I do or not. But I’ll tell you this much: The bull you seen goin’ thoo that gate a minute ago knows where he’s goin, and he knows what’ll be waitin’ for him when he gets there. Them bulls on Wall Street are headed for the edge of a cliff, and they runnin’ blind.”
“How about commodities, Mr. Pate?”
He gives me his wise look again. “Not on your life. They even riskier than stocks. If I put money in anything, it’d be in pecans and catfish, but I don’t think they’re listed. If I wanted to lose money on soybeans and corn, I’d be growin’m.”
“Not a chanch. Cows neither. It’s OK to run a few on the place for the tax break, or keep a couple of hogs on hand to slaughter, but they people out there throwin’ big money at hogs and cows that ain’t ever been near a live one. Wouldn’t know it if they stepped in it, if you know what I mean.”
“So hog futures aren’t for you?”
He’s been working on a piece of venison jerky for the longest, gumming it–I saw him slide his teeth into his shirt pocket. He stops his jaws and leans forward in his chair.
“Son,” he says quietly. “What kind of future do you think yer average hog has?”
On the way back to the Rock Pile we are walking in total darkness. Bullbats are swooping around us, climbing, falling with that weird sound they make, then flaring and climbing again.
“You know, Winship, Monday I think I’ll take out what little bit I’ve got left in the market. The old man may be onto something.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But he’s right about two things.”
“The blissful immediate future of that bull back there.” He walks without speaking for almost a full minute. His boots are crunching in the loose caliche at the edge of the road.
“And the other?”
“The dismal long-range future of your average hog.”