Posts tagged ‘CEO’

If Feel Like I Called The Elon Musk - Popular Mechanics Love Fest

In my extended article the other day about Tesla I wrote of Elon Musk

Elon Musk is not the smartest guy in the world.  He is clearly a genius at marketing and brand building.  He has a creative mind -- I have said before he would have been fabulous at coming up with each issue's cover story for Popular Mechanics.  A mile-long freight blimp!  Trains that run in underground vacuum tubes!  A colony on Mars!  But he suffers, I think, from the same lack of self-awareness many people develop when they are expert or successful in one thing -- they assume they will automatically be equally as brilliant and successful in other things.  Musk creates fanciful ideas that are exciting and might work technically, but will never ever pencil out as profitable business (e.g. Boring company, Hyperloop).

Seriously, go back and look at old popular mechanics covers.  Here is one in my domain:

The magazine specialized in really cool ideas that 14-year-old geeky boys like me ate up in the 1970s.  But most of them share in common with Elon Musk's ideas that they will never be practical.  So it is not surprising that Popular Mechanics put out an absolute puff issue on Elon Musk, apparently aimed at helping the man Popular Mechanics loves rehabilitate his reputation after getting some bad press for making false promises and breaking securities laws.   The piece was such a hopeless PR piece masquerading as journalism that the Atlantic felt the need to call them out for it.

Other readers, particularly journalists, were flabbergasted, including several Popular Mechanics staffers and contributors who declined to speak on the record because they feared jeopardizing their jobs. “It’s not the job of a magazine to do some PR recovery efforts for somebody exhibiting unstable behavior just because you like that he makes cool cars and rockets,” one Popular Mechanics writer said. (Disclosure: I worked at Popular Mechanics as a web intern for about a month in 2012.) For many journalists, the essay collection was a love letter bursting with unbridled, unfiltered admiration for Musk, a public figure the magazine covers, regularly and objectively. The material reads as if it came straight from the public-relations managers whose jobs are to make their boss look good.

In response to criticism the Popular Mechanics editor said:

D’Agostino said he decided to do the project after reading a slew of negative press of Musk and his properties, and, as he put it in the final collection, “myopic and small-brained” criticism. He cited as examples news coverage of the misleading tweet about Tesla, the ensuing SEC debacle, Musk’s weed experience on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the entrepreneur’s relationship with the singer Grimes....

Musk, he said, is a good representative for the Popular Mechanics ethos. “It’s always been a magazine about what’s possible and the people who sort of tinker with things and solve problems with the aim and goal of improving human life and existence, and using technology to make things better,” he said. “When you look at someone like Elon Musk, we kind of think of him as one of us. He’s doing something very Popular Mechanics—you don’t know if it’s going to work, but he tries these things and gives it his all.”

I am perfectly willing to acknowledge Musk's good points, as I did in my long essay linked above, but in my opinion Musk is leading a lot of very naive investors over a cliff.  Go read the Tesla fan boards and the $tsla tag at twitter and you will see a series of investors who have never bought a stock before talking about how they put all their savings into Tesla.  Ugh.  Magazines like Popular Mechanics have some responsibility not to shamelessly tout a high-risk stock to naive investors.

For those who don't want to read my whole essay, the biggest problem at Tesla is that Musk has promised a lot of things, all of which take capital which it is increasingly clear Tesla does not have.  The promised Semi, pickup truck, coupe, solar shingle, China expansion, EU sales of the model 3, expansion of the sales and service network, bringing body shops in house, implementation of full self-driving -- not to mention repaying a growing accounts payable backlog and over a billion dollars in debt coming due in the next 6 months -- all will require billions of capital and Tesla is hitting bottom.  Musk claims he will be able to fund this with organic cash production but this almost has to be an outright lie.  He needs to raise equity, but has not done so when his stock was at all-time highs.  Now that he is in trouble with the SEC, rumors swirl that he may not be able to raise new capital.  If he cannot, Tesla will be bankrupt in 6 months or less.  Tesla might survive if it can find a white knight (though many of the obvious candidates have turned him down) but this is a lot of risk for noob investors to take on and a lot of risk to simply IGNORE in a Popular Mechanics puff piece.

Postscript:

By the way, is the balance problem on Elon Musk coverage really a dirth of hagiography? This is the man the press explicitly calls the real life Tony Stark.  If anything, he needs that guy referred to in the final seconds of the movie Patton, the person who rides with the Roman general during his Triumph and whispers in his ear that all glory is fleeting.  I have no problem talking about the wonderful things Musk has helped push forward (and I do) but good God aren't you obligated to also include stuff like this, out of his own mouth?

You can click on the tweet and see my whole response, but eschewing 3rd party dealers and having its own sales and service network has been a Musk strategic pillar for 8 years.  The production ramp for the Model 3 is years behind.  And the CEO just looked at the map and realized they did not have enough service locations even for their less-than-expected sales?  This may be a great idea man and visionary and man who can get great efforts started, but this is not the tweet of a great, or even a good, CEO.

Fixing Tesla

I promised I would not post any more Tesla for a while, and to some extent I am keeping that promise -- no updates here on the SEC investigation or the 420 tweet.  But since I have been critical of Tesla in the past, I thought I would acknowledge that there are good things in Tesla that could and should be saved.  The problem is that Tesla is saddled with a bunch of problems that are NOT going to be solved by going private.  In fact, going private could only make things worse -- given that Tesla already has too much debt and its debt is rated barely above junk bonds, piling on more debt just to save Elon Musk from short sellers is not a good plan.  Here is what I would suggest:

  1. Find the right role for Elon Musk.  Musk HAS to be part of the company, without him its stock would go to about zero tomorrow.  But right now he is CEO, effective head of media relations, factory manager, and chief engineer.  Get him out of day to day management (and off Twitter) and hire real operating people who know what they are doing
  2. Get rid of the dealerships.  Tesla tried to do something different, which is own all the dealerships rather than franchise them out.  This is fine if one has some sort of vision for doing sales and service differently, but Tesla really doesn't.  It does the same things as other car dealerships but just slower since it has not been able to build out capacity fast enough.  And this decision has cost them a tons of growth capital they desperately need, because they have had to build out dealerships most car companies get for "free" because the capital for the dealerships is provided by third-party entrepreneurs.  Also, the third-party entrepreneurs bring other things to the table, for example many of them tend to have experience in the car sales business and a high profile in their local markets with government and media.
  3. If possible, find a partner for the charging network.  All traditional car companies get their fueling networks for free because the network is already built out by the oil companies.  Tesla is building its own, and again this is sucking up a lot of capital.  It is also dangerous, because Tesla has chosen to pursue a charging standard that may not become the industry standard (this is already happening in Europe) and Tesla risks being stuck with the betamax network.  Tesla should see if it can shift this to a third party, perhaps even in joint venture with other EV companies.
  4. Do an equity raise.  To my mind, it is absolute madness Tesla did not do this earlier in the year.   Their stock was trading at $350 and at a $50+ billion valuation at the same time they were burning cash cash at a rate of $3 billion or so a year.  Musk says he can skate through without more capital but he has said this before and it was not true.  Given the enthusiasm for his stock, there is just no reason to run cash poor when there are millions of Tesla fanboys just waiting to throw money at the company.  Even a $5 billion raise would have been only 10% dilution.  Musk says he wants to burn the shorts but ask any Tesla short out there what they would most fear, and I think they would all say an equity capital raise.  $3-5 billion would get Tesla at least through 2019 no matter how bad the cash burn remained and give the company space to solve its operational problems.
  5. Get someone who knows how to build cars building the cars.  I have written about this before -- it is always hard when you are trying to be a disruptor of an industry to decide what to disrupt and what industry knowledge to incorporate.  In retrospect, Musk's plan to ignore how cars are built and do it a different way is not working.  Not only are the cost issues and throughput issues, but there are growing reports of real quality issues in model 3's.  This has to be fixed ASAP.
  6. Bring some sanity to the long-term product roadmap.  This may be a bit cynical, but Tesla seems to introduce a new product every time Musk needs to divert the public's attention, his equivalent of yelling "Squirrel!"  There is the semi, a pickup truck, a roadster and probably something else I have forgotten about.  Even the model 3 lineup is confusing, with no one really knowing what Tesla is going to focus on, and whether the promised $35,000 model 3 will ever actually be built.  This confusion doesn't work well with investors at all, but Tesla has been able to make it work with customers, increasing the buzz around the company because no one ever seems to know what it will do next.  But once real competitors start coming out from GM, Volvo, Jaguar, BMW and others, this is not going to work.  Customers that are currently captive to Tesla will have other options.    Let's start with the semi.  The demo was a beautiful product, but frankly there is no way Tesla is going to have the time or the money to actually produce this thing.   Someone like Volvo is going to beat them to the punch.   They need to find a JV partner who can actually build it.

Update:  If I had a #7, it would be: Invent a time machine and go back and undo the corrupt SolarCity buyout, in which Tesla bailed out Musk's friends and family and promptly proceeded to essentially shut down the company.  Tesla shareholders got nothing from the purchase except a lot of debt.

 

Tesla Predictions Secured

I had dinner last night with my old college roommate Brink Lindsey and he even sort of rolled his eyes about my recent Tesla obsession, so I really really will try to make this the last post for a while.  However, I have to count coup on a few accurate predictions I made last week here and here.

First, I said, in reference to how Musk can bail himself out of his "funding secured" tweet when it has become clear this is not the case:

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

Today Musk writes:

Recently, after the Saudi fund bought almost 5% of Tesla stock through the public markets, they reached out to ask for another meeting. That meeting took place on July 31st. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the fund expressed regret that I had not moved forward previously on a going private transaction with them, and he strongly expressed his support for funding a going private transaction for Tesla at this time. I understood from him that no other decision makers were needed and that they were eager to proceed....

I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving. This is why I referred to “funding secured” in the August 7th announcement.

Of course the Feds probably expect "funding secured" to mean a signed term sheet (which does not exist) accompanied by an 8-K (which STILL has not been issued).  I then said in my prediction:

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

And today we learn:

But was the funding really secured? Apparently not, because in the very next paragraph Musk writes that "following the August 7th announcement, I have continued to communicate with the Managing Director of the Saudi fund. He has expressed support for proceeding subject to financial and other due diligence and their internal review process for obtaining approvals. He has also asked for additional details on how the company would be taken private, including any required percentages and any regulatory requirements."

Hmmm.  So basically Musk had a chat with the Saudis that did not include any due diligence, any percentages, or anything about the structure of the transaction and nothing has been submitted formally to the Saudis for the required review and approval.  The Feds would never accept this BS from an unpopular CEO like, say, Jeff Skilling.  It remains to be seen whether they will really go after cultural icon Musk.

Finally, I predicted the odd and relatively unprecedented transaction that Musk likely envisioned:

Here is what I think Musk wants -- he wants an LBO without any actual change in ownership. Basically he wants to create Tesla New, which will be private and not trade on the markets. He is hoping that all his current fanboy shareholders will exchange a share of Tesla for a share of Tesla New. Musk has already said he will do this with his 20%. In the extreme case, if every current shareholder wants in on the new private company, then no capital at all is needed for the LBO. Musk might admit that perhaps a billion or two are needed to buy out the few recalcitrants at $420, and then all the Tesla fanboys can enjoy short-seller-free illiquidity

There was no way that Musk could expect to raise $70-$80 billion ($420 times the float) or to run an already cash-starved business with that much debt.  The only way to imagine this is if the buyout was only of a small percentage of owners.  And sure enough, here is Musk this morning:

Therefore, reports that more than $70B would be needed to take Tesla private dramatically overstate the actual capital raise needed. The $420 buyout price would only be used for Tesla shareholders who do not remain with our company if it is private. My best estimate right now is that approximately two-thirds of shares owned by all current investors would roll over into a private Tesla.

I won't comment on whether this is possible because I don't know enough about security laws.  I have been told that the SEC would likely frown on a private company with no public disclosures that has thousands or even millions of individual shareholders, but again, I don't know.

I find it amazing that anyone would want to stay in on this basis, but like Musk, the Tesla fan-boys seem to care more about burning the shorts than the quality of their own long investment in Tesla.  How can moving your small (percentage-wise) investment in Tesla from being exchange-traded to being locked up in a private company possibly be an improvement?  Today your investment has total liquidity (you can sell any time), it has massive 3rd party scrutiny and accountability, and it has real-time price discovery.  You would lose all of that in a private company.  You can only sell when Musk lets you sell and at the price he chooses to give you based on whatever company information he chooses to release.  Choosing the private option as a minority shareholder is like saying that you would rather hold non-refundable airline tickets than fully refundable ones.

Postscript:  I am new to the world of short-selling fights, as I am not really an active investor and just got sucked into watching Tesla because I found it interesting.  But wow, the tribalism of politics sure has leaked into the investment world!  In tribal politics, we see people more motivated by hatred of the other tribe than by making progress on their own tribe's goals.  This same kind of "reasoning" seems to dominate a lot of the Tesla long-short battle.

Update:  Here is a new prediction.  For a while Elon Musk has claimed he will not have to raise capital this year.  Everyone basically looks at his numbers and thinks he is nuts.  What's more, given his $50 billion equity valuation currently, he SHOULD be raising capital now while his stock is high and thus his cost of capital is low.

But one way to look at this is if he raises $20 billion in equity to buy out the 1/3 he thinks will want the cash rather than the new stock, he could easily just make that $22 billion so the company has an extra $2 billion in operating cash and thus raise capital this year without it looking like he violated his promise not to raise capital.

 

My Guesses About $TSLA, and Why @TSLA Shareholder May Be Presented with a Bad Deal

@Elonmusk is facing real blowback for his management buyout by tweet the other day, in particular for two words:  "funding secured."  Many, including myself, doubt he really had tens of billions of dollars of funding secured at the time, particularly since all bankers and likely sources of funding as well as most large Tesla shareholders had never heard of any such transaction when contacted by the media.  The SEC is now looking into this and other Musk corporate communication practices.  If he lied in the tweet, perhaps to get revenge on the short-sellers he hates with an irrational passion, he could be in deep, deep legal poop, up to and including jail.

Let's play a game.  Let's assume he did NOT have funding secured at the time he tweeted this, and now is running scared.  What can he do?  One ace he has is that the board is in his pocket and (I hate to be so cynical about this) will likely lie their asses off to cover Musk.  We already saw the dubious letter the other day, from "members of the board" rather than officially from the board, attempting to provide cover for Musk's tweets.  This is not just a crony thing -- it is entirely rational for the company to defend Musk.  He is, in my opinion, a terrible executive but he is the avatar that drives the fan boys and the stock price.  The day that Musk leaves is the day that the company can really get its operational house in order but it is also the day the stock trades under $75.

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

The problem with this is it would be really a deal being crafted for tens of billions of dollars on a very short timeframe and with limited negotiating leverage (X will know that Musk NEEDS this deal).  As a result, the deal is not likely to be a very good one.  X will demand all sorts of extraordinary provisions, perhaps, for example, a first lien on all Tesla IP and a high breakup fee.  I picture this more like the negotiation for bankruptcy financing, and in fact the IP lien was part of the financing deal Theranos made when it was going down the drain.  But put yourself in Musk's shoes -- jail or bad deal?

And likely his conscience would be clear because this deal would be killed quickly by shareholders.  That would be fine, because the purpose of the exercise would be to keep Musk out of jail, not to actually buy the company.  Tesla shareholders will still get hosed, probably having to pay some kind of break-up fee which any sane investor X would insert as the price for participating in this farce.  And we will go back to the starting point of all this, which is Tesla being public and focusing on operational improvement in what may be the most important operational quarter in its history.

Disclosure:  I have in the past been short Tesla but have no position in it now (I did short when trading reopened the other day after Musk's announcement but covered this afternoon).  I am not in any way, shape, or form giving any financial advice you should spend actual money backing.

Musk's Proposed Tesla LBO Price of 420: Intentionally Hilarious? My Guess Is Musk Wants An LBO Without Any Actual Change in Ownership

Today, following his usual practice of ignoring all the securities laws that other CEO's have legions of lawyers to educate them on, Musk teased a possible Tesla LBO in a series of tweets.  In case you are wondering, it is not generally considered best practice in legal compliance to issue such information in cryptic tweets, and it is definitely not usual to do so while the stock is actively trading.  You can read the whole story here, though it continues to evolve as the market has finally halted trading in Tesla.

Here is the part I found funny watching this in real time:

Mr. Musk’s account tweeted at 12:48 p.m. ET: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” It isn’t clear what prompted the tweet. Mr. Musk has a history of joking on Twitter and sending erratic tweets.

About 30 minutes later, the account tweeted “420” in response to a reporter’s tweet asking what price buyers might pay.

When this came out, I honestly thought "420" was an admission by Musk of a drug-induced mental state when the previous tweet went out, but in fact it appears to be his target price for the LBO.  Some quick thoughts

  • This would fit Musk's personality, as he seems unable to ignore those shorting Tesla stock and would get the twin satisfactions in such a deal of a) burning a lot of current shorts and b) making shorts irrelevant in the future as going private ends the active market for the company.
  • The implied valuation would be insane, something like $75 billion in equity (compared to GM and Ford which are both around $50 billion) plus $9 billion or so of assumed debt.  Tesla is already at the breaking point on debt so it is unclear where the funding would come from -- LBO's generally increase leverage and Tesla needs to decrease it, and needs a lot more capital for operations and growth going forward.  But Musk claims he has the deal funded already.
  • Part of the clue to the capital availability may be the Saudis.  It was revealed today that the Saudi's own just under 5% of Tesla' stock.
  • Here is what I think Musk wants -- he wants an LBO without any actual change in ownership.  Basically he wants to create Tesla New, which will be private and not trade on the markets.  He is hoping that all his current fanboy shareholders will exchange a share of Tesla for a share of Tesla New.  Musk has already said he will do this with his 20%.  In the extreme case, if every current shareholder wants in on the new private company, then no capital at all is needed for the LBO.  Musk might admit that perhaps a billion or two are needed to buy out the few recalcitrants at $420, and then all the Tesla fanboys can enjoy short-seller-free illiquidity.

This is great for those who want out, but for those who are in for the long haul, it seems like a lot of capital just to remove short sellers from the picture.  This is a company that does not have anywhere near enough capital to do the things it has already promised to do (China plant, model 3 ramp, $35,000 model 3 car, semi, pickup truck, two-seater, battery storage projects, revive SolarCity, etc.).  For those who think that the capital will always be there for Musk, just remember SolarCity, which was close to bankruptcy and in steep decline when Musk engineered the insider deal with Tesla.

Update:  This statement from a Morningstar analyst makes no sense to me:

Taking it private would allow the billionaire “to not constantly worry about going to the public markets for more money,” Mr. Whiston said. “He can do what he needs to do behind closed doors and keep growing the company without all that extra scrutiny.”

I get the second part -- Musk would love to avoid the extra scrutiny -- Theranos probably survived years longer as a private company than it ever would have as a public company.  But I don't understand how it stops the need to go to the public markets for more money.  Cash needs are driven by Tesla growth plans and they still need a LOT more.  Going private does not make this easier, it makes it harder by cutting off one huge source of capital (public markets) and potentially loading up the company with extra debt from the privatization transaction.

Republicans Have A Learning Problem

Trump supporters are complaining that similar immigration actions that were essentially ignored by the press under Obama are now taking up half the nightly news broadcast under Trump.  As an aside, this is only partially true -- the Trump Administration has antagonized and worsened what was previously a bad, admittedly ignored, situation.  But my main reaction is this:  Well, no sh*t.  What about the major news outlets reporting Republican actions differently than Democratic actions surprises you in the least?  Seriously, at what point do you accept this as totally expected behavior and plan around it?

If I were CEO of, say, Exxon-Mobil (XOM), and I had my PR guy come into the room after a PR debacle and tell me that the press was not being fair to oil companies, that Apple (say) did the same things, I would retort the same thing I did above:  "Well, no sh*t.  What planet have you been living on?  The media has hated us and attempted to score points off us since 1972.  That is a FACT and it is your job to help this company navigate given this FACT."  I would fire the guy immediately.  His complaint would merely demonstrate he was a terrible choice to do communications for us.

I don't understand why the Republican rank and file keep enabling this behavior from their party.  I am not going to tell them to support different policies, though I disagree with them.  But why do they keep accepting that these constant PR disasters are not the fault of their leadership, and that somehow the only way out is some sort of not-going-to-happen remaking of the media?  Conservatives like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists, but good God there is sure a lot of whining going on about stuff that ain't going to change any time soon.

Hmm, I Think the Elephant in the Room on this Business Relocation is Being Ignored

Apparently some hot new auto company called Nikola Motors (in the class of companies to my mind like Tesla and Fiskar that have a sexy idea and a lot of cash burn) is relocating to the Phoenix area.  Ugh.  You know what that probably means:

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Nikola Motor Company today announced the company has selected Buckeye, Arizona for its Nikola Motor Company hydrogen-electric semi-truck manufacturing headquarters facility. The new 500 acre, one million square foot facility will be located on the west side of Phoenix and will bring more than $1 billion in capital investment to the region by 2024.

"After 12 months, nine states and 30 site locations, ArizonaGovernor DuceySandra Watson and Chris Camacho were the clear front runners. Arizona has the workforce to support our growth and a governor that was an entrepreneur himself. They understood what 2,000 jobs would mean to their cities and state," said Trevor Milton, CEO and founder, Nikola Motor Company. "We will begin transferring our R&D and headquarters to Arizona immediately and hope to have the transition completed by October 2018. We have already begun planning the construction for our new zero emission manufacturing facility in Buckeye, which we expect to have underway by the end of 2019."

Nikola Motor Company designs and manufactures hydrogen-electric vehicles, electric vehicle drivetrains, vehicle components, energy storage systems and hydrogen stations. The company is bringing the nation's most advanced semi-trucks to market with over 8,000 trucks on preorder.

Nikola Motor Company selected Buckeye, Arizona due to numerous factors including the state's pro-business environment, engineering schools, educated workforce and geographic location that provides direct access to major markets.

How much do you want to bet that the number 1 reason for moving to Phoenix was left off the list: taxpayer subsidies.  Yep, I have not seen the deal, but my guess is that yet another company is going to get a piece of my profits transferred over to them because they make a better photo op and press release for politicians.  I am pretty sure that the statement "[arizona] understood what 2,000 jobs would mean to their cities and state" is code for "they offered us a pile of cash".

Postscript: By the way, I do like their idea of a hydrogen truck better than Musk's all-electric truck -- that is, if they can figure out how to scale up a hydrogen distribution system.

Shifting Mix is Often Ignored as the Reason Behind A Shifting Mean

I have written about this mix effect many times, eg here.  Imagine a corporate division that sells tables and chairs.  The CEO is reviewing this division's performance, and sees that their revenues are increasing but their profit margin is falling.  He asks his analyst to look into it - is it the tables or the chairs or both that are showing falling margins.  Our poor harassed analyst comes back and says, uh, neither.  The profit margins for both tables and chairs went up last year.  Well, the CEO asks, if revenues are up and all their component margins are going up, how is their total margin falling?  It turns out that tables make a much higher margin than chairs, and over the last year the company has seen a much higher growth in chair sales than table sales.  The mix is shifting towards a lower margin product and is bringing the averages down.  By the way, I can say with authority that this conversation is much harder when the analyst is yours truly and the CEO is famed tough (but talented) boss Chuck Knight of Emerson Electric.

Whether the media mentions this effect or not, it is happening all the time.  Here is an example from the WSJ:

One mystery of this economic expansion is that wage growth has remained slow even as the labor market has finally tightened. One widely cited culprit is historically low productivity growth. But a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco adds a more optimistic, albeit paradoxical, explanation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that median weekly earnings had risen in July by a healthy 4.2% on an annual basis, the fastest growth in a decade. As labor markets tighten, employers typically increase wages. Until this past year, however, median weekly earnings growth had hovered near 2%, which is significantly less than the 3.25% average from 1983 to 2015.

So why haven’t wages risen faster amid an increase in hiring and unfilled jobs? One answer is that wages have actually been growing at a faster clip—around 4% to 5%—at least for full-time workers with steady jobs. But new full-time workers who are generally paid less than the retirees they replace are dragging down the average wage increase.

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed this week updated their 2016 paper that disaggregated the wages of full-time workers with steady employment from recent entrants—that is, new workers or those returning to full-time work. Their earlier analysis showed that average wage growth had slowed less than expected during the recession while staying relatively flat during the recovery.

That’s because workers who lost jobs during the recession were generally lower skilled and lower paid, so average weekly wages didn’t fall significantly. However, many of those workers have since been rehired at below-average wages, which has depressed the aggregate.

In prior expansions, wage growth has been driven mostly by continuously full-time employed workers, and the researchers find that’s still the case. Wage growth for these workers is now close to the pre-recession 2007 peak. But there are now many more workers who have been on the labor-force sidelines who are moving to full-time employment, thus creating a drag on wages.

This is frequently how mix shifts play out in the news.  Notice that there are actually two pieces of good news here:  1.  Wages for full-time workers who have been employed for a while are growing well and 2.  lower-skilled and less experienced workers who left the labor force are now getting jobs and returning to work.  However, when these are combined, the net is portrayed as bad news, ie wage growth in the US is sluggish.  Because the mix was ignored.

Recent Harvard Business School Grads Hardest Hit

Apparently, European investment banks will have to start charging for research that, apparently, no one reads (emphasis added)

"The global investment research market is on the cusp of major disruption," said Benjamin Quinlan, CEO of Hong Kong-based Quinlan & Associates and author of a report on the challenges facing the research sector.

Forcing the change are new rules, known as Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or MiFID II, due to take effect in January 2018 aiming to make European securities markets more transparent.

A key aspect of these rules is that investment banks must charge fund managers an explicit fee for research rather than bundling the cost into trading commissions charged to clients, as at present.

...For example, about 40,000 research reports are produced every week by the world's top 15 global investment banks, of which less than 1 percent are actually read by investors, according to Quinlan.

When I was there, an enormous number of Harvard Business School grads got their first post-b-school job as analysts writing just such reports.

My Favorite Convenience Tech: The Disney Magic Band

Before discussing the Disney Magic Band, I got to thinking about this from this article linked by Tyler Cowen:

The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger. Then, with a click, a microchip is injected in the employee’s hand. Another “cyborg” is created.

What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace is almost routine at the Swedish startup hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter. As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.”

If you are like me, your immediate reaction is "Yuk, I can't imagine doing this."  But my second reaction is that there is really a step change in convenience here that folks who have not tried it may be underestimating.

The reason I know this is from my experience with the Disney Magic Band, a waterproof bracelet about the size of a small watch.  Here is an example, which includes my awesome customized tiger striping I painted on the basic orange band:

At Disneyworld, this band acts as

  • Your room key, activating the electronic locks on your room
  • Your credit card and wallet, with the ability to pay for anything anywhere in the parks and affiliated stores and hotels with a touch to the reader at every register (most require a 4-digit PIN number to be entered as well)
  • Your park entrance ticket
  • Your restaurant reservation
  • Your ride reservation (Fastpass)

One can easily navigate a multiday trip through Disneyworld without a wallet or keys and just this on your wrist.  It is pretty compelling.

The Downside of Web/Cloud Enabled Devices (Including My Oddest Analogy of the Week)

Google's parent Alphabet is abandoning support for Revlov's Smart Home Hub (which they bought a while back).  In and of itself this part of an irritating strategy (pursued enthusiastically both by Alphabet and Apple) of identifying edgy new devices with enthusiastic user bases, buying them, and then shutting them down.   I was a SageTV fan and user back in the day until Google bought it and shut it down (as a potential competitor to GoogleTV and its other streaming products).  The bright side is that this pushed me to XBMC/KODI, which is better.  The dark side is that I am sure Google could easily write those guys a check and then they will be gone too.

Anyway, after SageTV was shut down by Google, I could still use the hardware and software, it just did not get improved or updated or supported any more.  But increasingly new electronic products are requiring some sort of cloud integration or online account activation.  To work, the product actually has to check in with the manufacturer's servers.  So what happens when those servers are shut down?

Alphabet-owned company Nest is going to pull the plug on the Revolv smart home hub and app on May 15, rendering the hardware unusable next month.

Just to be clear on how much of a big deal this is, the company isn't only out to stop support but to really disable the device and turn the hub into a $300 teardrop-shaped brick. How much does a pitchfork go for nowadays?

...Needless to say, existing users are outraged by the development, and they have very good reason to be so."When software and hardware are intertwined, does a warranty mean you stop supporting the hardware or does it mean that the manufacturer can intentionally disable it without consequence? Tony Fadell seems to believe the latter. Tony believes he has the right to reach into your home and pull the plug on your Nest products," Arlo Gilbert, CEO of Televero and formerly proud owner of a Revolv hub, says, emphasizing that "Google is intentionally bricking hardware that he owns."

Video game enthusiasts have worried about this for years, and have started to encounter this problem, as the new most-favored copyright protection scheme is to require an online account and an account-check each time the game is run.  They try to say the online component is adding value, and they do a few things like leader boards and achievements, but the primary rational is copy protection.    Personally I find this generally easier to work with than other types of copy protection that have been tried (I really like Steam, for example) but what happens when the login servers are shut down?

This sort of reminds me, oddly enough, of cemeteries.  There used to be a problem where private cemetery owners would sell out the cemetery, fill it up, and move on.  But then the cemetery itself would fall apart.  It's not like the owners are still around to pay association dues like condo owners do.  Once people figured out that problem, they quickly began demanding that cemeteries have a plan for long-term maintenance, with assets in trust or some such thing.  Perhaps the hardware and software industry will do the same thing.  I could see a non-profit trust getting set up by the major players to which manufacturers pay dues in exchange for having the trust take over their servers after a product is abandoned.

Flattery is Death for an Organization

The WSJ wrote the other day about Hillary Clinton's emails:

A common thread running through the tens of thousands of emails that landed in Hillary Clinton’s in-box in her time as secretary of state is that aides and assorted advisers believe she is, well, awesome.

With a few exclamation points tacked on.

In notes sent to the private email account Mrs. Clinton used, various advisers routinely heap praise on the person who gave them their jobs or elevated them to her inner circle. Email flattery of this sort is a common tactic in the everyday workplace, but the Clinton emails show how it comes into play at the highest levels of government.

Employees tell Mrs. Clinton she is doing a “spectacular job,” that she has many admirers and that her remarks were “pitch perfect.” They assure her she looks “gorgeous” in photos and commend her clothing choices.

Look, I guess everyone has their own leadership style but from my experience it is a terrible idea to promote this kind of thing in one's organization.

Why?  Well, my organization has 350 people in it.  We can either think with just one person (me), working to improve our operations, or we can think with 350.  Those 349 other people know many of the ways in which we are screwing up and can improve -- the problem is getting them to come forward with those ideas.  And getting them to do so is far less likely if we are maintaining some sort of North Korean style personality cult of the CEO.

I have written about this before, but it's why I consider my Ivy League degrees to be a negative in running the company.  Many of my employees have only a high school education (at best) and are intimidated in bringing up an idea or telling me I am screwing up because they assume since I have these Ivy League degrees I must be smarter than they are and know what I am doing.   But in their particular job, in terms of my knowledge of what they see every day from customers and operationally, I am dumb as a post and completely ignorant.

Anyone who has worked for me for more than a few months can likely quote my favorite line which I use in most of my employee talks -- "If you see something that seems screwed up, don't assume Warren is smarter than you and wants it that way, assume that Warren is screwing up and needs to be told."

Postscript:  This sort of flattery also makes me deeply uncomfortable on a personal level, so much so I have a hard time understanding people who revel in it.  I once had an employee that could not stop with this sort of personal flattery, and eventually we ended up terminating them.  We terminated them for other good reasons, but I must admit to being relieved when they left.

Yelp Doesn't Delete Negative Reviews Its Sponsors Don't Like -- It Merely Hides Them So They Won't Ever Be Viewed

Update:  This post may be unfair, as discussed here.  I am not fully convinced, though.

I won't repeat what I wrote before, but several months ago I wrote a long article about my suspicions that Yelp was using its review recommendation system to disappear reviews its corporate sponsors and their attorneys did not like.   My evidence was based on my actual experience writing a detailed, fact-based negative review of an insurer, only to have it disappear from the site and be left out of the insurer's overall score.

It took me a long time to find the review, along with dozens of others, in a purgatory of "not recommended" reviews reachable from a near invisible link that doesn't even look like a link.  I won't retype the whole post but my evidence was in part:

  • Yelp says it is sending reviews to not-recommended purgatory because they are of lower quality or have reviewers with less reviewing history on Yelp.  But a scan of the reviews in my case showed no such pattern.  Not-recommended reviews were at least as (and arguably more) detailed than recommended reviews, and there was no discernible difference in reviewer experience.  The not recommended reviews were also no less moderate, as there was immoderate language (and horrible grammar) in accepted reviews while there were calm and reasoned reviews that were rejected.
  • What the not-recommended reviews had in common was that they tended to be more negative on average than the recommended ones (which is hard to do because the recommended reviews average to about 1.5 stars)
  • Looking at several local independent restaurants, I saw no or few not-recommended reviews and pages and pages of recommended reviews, a ratio that was reversed for the major insurer which presumably has far more resources to intimidate or buy off Yelp.  For the insurer, there were two not-recommended reviews for every one recommended one.
  • I knew this insurer to be willing to litigate against bad reviews, since they have sued me for libel to remove my review.  Presumably, they would not hesitate to threaten Yelp as well.
  • Yelp already has a review quality system driven by upvoting by customers based on the usefulness of the review.  So why the need for an entirely parallel review-rating system unless that rating system was for an entirely different purpose than quality control.

Yelp got a lot of grief a while back accusing it of deleting reviews, so its CEO has pledged on multiple occasions that it doesn't do so.  I believe them.  Instead, it looks like Yelp disappears reviews in a way that the CEO can truthfully say they were not deleted, but they are for all intents and purposes invisible to the public.

Anyway, all this was spurred by the following trailer sent to me with this article from a reader.  Apparently a film called Billion Dollar Bully is being made about Yelp, and from the hints in the trailer it appears that they will be taking on many of the issues I listed above and frankly have only been able to guess at rather than prove.  Brava!

Why It Is Good to Be A White Male: I Had to Take Ownership for My Business Failures

Ellen Pao's supporters are blaming her departure from Reddit on sexism, despite the fact that the much of the opposition to her inside Reddit resulted from her termination of a popular female employee.  I don't know what is inside her head of course, but after reading her piece in the WaPo, it sure doesn't look like she blames anything she did at Reddit for her failure there.

It is certainly possible to build a case that her decision-making at Reddit was ham-fisted and reactionary and not what the organization needed.  I am the first to acknowledge that the dialog over large swaths of Reddit is toxic, but that is not a new thing.  The odd bit to me is that Pao seems to have jumped right into the fray and immediately started swinging randomly.  Why?  What was the rush?  I have never heard of a new leader jumping into an organization and immediately firing off culture-changing orders (there are a few exceptions to this, such as there-are-only -6-weeks-of-cash-in-the-bank crises, but this was not one of those).  Even if you think you know what ails the company, you have to show the organization some respect and talk to a lot of people first.   To me, it looked like a classic impatient arrogant technocrat's mistake -- but what does she think?  Does she acknowledge error at all, even privately?

I say all this because I know quite personally what it is like to fail in business, and more importantly, just how very hard it is to acknowledge that such failure is one's own fault.  To explain it, I have to give some background that will seem self-promoting.

I was always top in my class at school.  I had my choice of Ivy League schools to attend, and graduated Princeton just a few hundredths of a GPA point (on the north side of 4) from being top of my department.  Five years later, I did graduate first in my class at Harvard Business School.  I write all this to say I entered the business world with supreme confidence.

The first signs of trouble were there in my very first job, though I only see them now.  The engineering work at Exxon was easy, but I tended to drag my feet on tasks that required I seek out and pull together coalitions of experts.  Ditto for my consulting work at McKinsey, where my analytical work and modelling were first-rate but my client building work was mediocre.

It was hard, really impossible at this point in my life, to accept I was failing at something.  Even McKinsey's sending me to executive charm school (I kid you not, such things exist) was not a wake up call.  I KNEW my analysis was awesome.  I figured that was all that mattered.  McKinsey was instead seeing an ADD guy with awkward people skills who would wander around the room eating off the side-board while in a formal meeting with a Fortune 25 CEO.

Things finally fell apart when I was working for a guy, really a legendary guy, named Chuck Knight at Emerson Electric.  Again, I kept telling myself the analytical work I was doing was awesome, and I am sure it was.  But even I couldn't fail to figure out that somehow my other people skills were totally wrong for corporate America.

And even then, when the organization made it abundantly clear I was not going to get any further promotions, pressing my face against the glass so to speak, I STILL could not fully face reality.  I blamed my failings on a culture clash and similar things.  You have heard this before -- "I left that company because it was totally screwed up."  But it wasn't screwed up.  It was a very solid, well-managed organization and a great place to work for the right people.

I was allowed to continue to avoid reality because I continued to fail upwards, getting an even larger job at a new company after Emerson based on my academic record and ability to do fabulous interviews (don't ask me why as an introvert I could do interviews but not one-on-one business discussions with my superiors, or why I thrive at speaking to large audiences but can't handle a cocktail party -- I don't know).

Again, at a large aerospace company, I had more great insights but little impact on the company.  I created this awesome presentation -- it is still the best description of how profits are and are going to shift within the aerospace industry I have ever seen -- but I was being paid to do stuff that improved this year's sales and it wasn't happening (though to be a little fair to myself, making change in the aerospace business is a bit like trying to turn an aircraft carrier by pushing on the prow with a fishing boat).

It took me a couple more jobs and a taking a year off around the age of 40 to finally acknowledge all of this.  After the pain of accepting failure, though, things really improved.  I thought about what I did well and what I don't, and built my own company in large part based on those insights.   Examples:  Sales in my business are based more on creating huge, analytical written bid documents rather than face-to-face persuasion.  Management is more about creating a great process and implementing that process consistently in scores of locations using technology and training.    Most importantly, I am the boss, and many of my past interpersonal failures had to do with interacting with people with more authority, of which there are none in my company.

I don't deny that women or people of color in business likely face obstacles I have never faced, and I long for a world where that will no longer be true.  But in trying to be sympathetic to women and people of various races and the discrimination they face, we also may be doing them a disservice, making it harder for them to gain self-awareness of their own abilities.  After all, if I had been able to play the race or gender card as an excuse, I likely would never have gained what self-awareness I have today.

A Great Example of How the Media Twists Facts on Climate

First, let's start with the Guardian headline:

Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years

So now let's look at the email, in full, which is the sole source for the Guardian headline.  I challenge you, no matter how much you squint, to find a basis for the Guardian's statement.  Basically the email says that Exxon knew of the concern about global warming in 1981, but did not necessarily agree with it.  Hardly the tobacco-lawyer cover-up the Guardian is trying to make it sound like.  I will reprint the email in full because I actually think it is a pretty sober view of how good corporations think about these issues, and it accurately reflects the Exxon I knew from 3 years as a mechanical / safety engineer in a refinery.

I will add that you can see the media denial that a lukewarmer position even exists (which I complained about most recently here) in full action in this Guardian article.  Exxon's position as described in the Guardian's source looks pretty close to the lukewarmer position to me -- that man made global warming exists but is being exaggerated.   But to the Guardian, and many others, there is only full-blown acceptance of the most absurd exaggerated climate change forecasts or you are a denier.  Anyway, here is the email in full:

Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.

Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable. Natural gas often contains CO2 and the technology for removing CO2 is well known. In 1981 (and now) the usual practice was to vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions.

The alternative to venting CO2 to the atmosphere is to inject it into ground. This technology was also well known, since the oil industry had been injecting limited quantities of CO2 to enhance oil recovery. There were many questions about whether the CO2 would remain in the ground, some of which have been answered by Statoil’s now almost 20 years of experience injecting CO2 in the North Sea. Statoil did this because the Norwegian government placed a tax on vented CO2. It was cheaper for Statoil to inject CO2 than pay the tax. Of course, Statoil has touted how much CO2 it has prevented from being emitted.

In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue. Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations. Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system. It did question – legitimately, in my opinion – the validity of some of the science.

Political battles need to personify the enemy. This is why liberals spend so much time vilifying the Koch brothers – who are hardly the only big money supporters of conservative ideas. In climate change, the first villain was a man named Donald Pearlman, who was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (In another life, he was instrumental in getting the U.S. Holocaust Museum funded and built.) Pearlman’s usefulness as a villain ended when he died of lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker to the end.

Then the villain was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a trade organization of energy producers and large energy users. I was involved in GCC for a while, unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality. (That effort got me on to the front page of the New York Times, but that’s another story.) Environmental group pressure was successful in putting GCC out of business, but they also lost their villain. They needed one which wouldn’t die and wouldn’t go out of business. Exxon, and after its merger with Mobil ExxonMobil, fit the bill, especially under its former CEO, Lee Raymond, who was vocally opposed to climate change regulation. ExxonMobil’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has taken a much softer line, but ExxonMobil has not lost its position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil. It is the only company mentioned in Alyssa’s e-mail, even though, in my opinion, it is far more ethical that many other large corporations.

Having spent twenty years working for Exxon and ten working for Mobil, I know that much of that ethical behavior comes from a business calculation that it is cheaper in the long run to be ethical than unethical. Safety is the clearest example of this. ExxonMobil knows all too well the cost of poor safety practices. The Exxon Valdez is the most public, but far from the only, example of the high cost of unsafe operations. The value of good environmental practices are more subtle, but a facility that does a good job of controlling emission and waste is a well run facility, that is probably maximizing profit. All major companies will tell you that they are trying to minimize their internal CO2 emissions. Mostly, they are doing this by improving energy efficiency and reducing cost. The same is true for internal recycling, again a practice most companies follow. Its just good engineering.

France Arrests Entrepreneurs for Crime of Innovation. Is it Any Wonder the Economy Sucks?

CEO of Uber France has been arrested because, uh, his competitors have resorted to violence to defend their inferior product.  The fact that the victim rather than the perpetrators of violence is getting arrested speaks volumes to how far governments will go to block innovation that hurts politically-connected incumbents.

After days of violent protests and defiance on the part of Uber's French management, two of the company's employees were taken into custody for "illicit activity" today. Uber France CEO Thibaut Simphal and Uber European GM Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty were arrested for running the company's ride-sharing service illegally. TechCrunch reports the pair is also being held under suspicion of "concealing digital documents." Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve took legal action to shut down UberPOP, the service that employs non-professional drivers to provide rides, in response to protests that blocked key transportation hubs.

... While UberPOP was banned in France earlier this year, an appeals court said it could continue to operate until the final decision was handed down in September.

The Next Time the Media Complains About High CEO Pay.... It May be Projection

Six of the ten highest paid CEO's run media companies.

Six of the 10 highest-paid CEOs last year worked in the media industry, according to a study carried out by executive compensation data firm Equilar and The Associated Press.

The best-paid chief executive of a large American company was David Zaslav, head of Discovery Communications, the pay-TV channel operator that is home to "Shark Week." His total compensation more than quadrupled to $156.1 million in 2014 after he extended his contract.

Les Moonves, of CBS, held on to second place in the rankings, despite a drop in pay from a year earlier. His pay package totaled $54.4 million.

The remaining four CEOs, from entertainment giants Viacom, Walt Disney, Comcast and Time Warner, have ranked among the nation's highest-paid executives for at least four years, according to the Equilar/AP pay study.

More power to 'em, as long as their shareholders are happy.  But I am tired of these self-same individuals attempting to bring regulatory pressure on the rest of us in the name of high CEO pay.

Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.

 

 

Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?

When Corporations Use Social Causes as Cover for Cutting Costs

My absolute favorite example of corporations using social causes as cover for cost-cutting is in hotels.  You have probably seen it -- the little cards in the bathroom that say that you can help save the world by reusing your towels.  This is freaking brilliant marketing.  It looks all environmental and stuff, but in fact they are just asking your permission to save money by not doing laundry.

However, we may have a new contender for my favorite example of this.  Via Instapundit, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is banning salary negotiations to help women, or something:

Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,’ she said. ‘So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.’

Like the towels in hotels are not washed to save the world, this is marketed as fairness to women, but note in fact that women don't actually get anything.  What the company gets is an excuse to make their salaries take-it-or-leave-it offers and helps the company draw the line against expensive negotiation that might increase their payroll costs.

Postscript:  Yes, I understand the theory of negotiation and price discrimination, as used by auto dealers.  One can make an argument that setting prices high (or wages low) and then allowing negotiation by the most wage or price sensitive is the best way to optimize profits, and that Pao's plan in the long-term may actually raise their total compensation costs for the same quality people.  I don't think she is thinking that far ahead.

This is Why Running a Service Business is Hard

This Starbucks story illustrates the hardest part about running a service business

"Pregnant woman denied Starbucks bathroom useage"

Of course, Starbucks did not deny this woman access to the bathroom.  Had the board of directors, CEO, and most of the management been at the store, they would have happily helped the woman use the Starbucks bathroom.  This woman was actually denied access to the bathroom by some knucklehead employee of Starbucks, one of the tens of thousands they hire, who likely thought they were doing the right thing.

I am sure Starbucks has a policy that the bathrooms are for customers only, and honestly in a lot of urban areas that is an essential policy or else one finds themselves spending a lot of money cleaning the bathroom and providing the public facilities that the city or shopping center developer chose not to fund.

However, in a service business, one of the keys to providing good customer service and maintaining a good reputation is, ironically, having your employees know when the rules need to be bent.  This is the number 1 thing in every training session we have in our company -- when the rules have to be enforced (safety, fires, quiet time at night) and when to back off and not act like the campground nazi ruining everyone's visit.

I have thought about why this should be for quite a while.  If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone?  And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

First, there simply are exceptions.  This is the same reason that mandatory sentencing guidelines in criminal law and no tolerance rules in schools always run to grief.

Second, even if there are not exceptions, there are people who really, really, really, strongly, aggressively believe that they are indeed an exception.  Call this modern entitlement, but we get this all the time.  Dog owners are a great example.  Every single one of them understands perfectly why everyone else's dogs have to be on leash but no one believes their little darling is a problem.  Dogs are in fact the hardest issue we often have to manage.  Ask someone to put a dog on leash and we get vitriolic complaints sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.  Let them run around and we get vitriolic complaints sent other visitors who are bothered by dogs sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.

Finally, the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable, while the cost of allowing everyone to break the rule is high.  Take the case of bathrooms.  Letting one non-customer use the bathroom costs zero.  But once word gets out that you allow public use of your bathrooms, everyone in a half-mile radius is lined up at the door every day.

 

Super-Smart!

I didn't get that big Internet payout from my year or so at Mercata, but those of us involved have this to fall back on:

Founder and CEO Steve El-Hage acknowledged that “super-smart people had tried to get the ball rolling in the past” on group buying — one of them was Mercata, which shut down back in 2001. (More recently, I’ve written about a group-buying startup called Higgle.)

It's amazing how group buying is an idea that keeps coming back.   Even pre-social media, we found it to be a better tool for driving viral marketing than for achieving any economies of scale.

Healthcare Deductibles Rising -- Why This is GOOD News

Things like Obamacare cannot be discussed, it seems, in anything but a political context.  So if you don't like Obamacare, everything that happens has to be bad. But I actually think this is good news, and goes against my fears in advance of Obamacare.  I had been worried that Obamacare would just increase the trends of more and more health care spending being by third-party payers.  And my guess is that this is happening, when you consider how many people have gone from paying cash to having a policy, either a regular policy or expanded Medicaid.

A report out today puts numbers behind what hit many workers when they signed up for health insurance during open enrollment last year: deductible shock.

Premiums for employer-paid insurance are up 3% this year, but deductibles are up nearly 50% since 2009, the report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows.

The average deductible this year is $1,217, up from $826 five years ago, Nearly 20% of workers overall have to pay at least $2,000 before their insurance kicks in, while workers at firms with 199 or fewer employees are feeling the pain of out-of-pocket costs even more: A third of these employees at small companies pay at least $2,000 deductibles.

“Skin-in-the-game insurance” is becoming the norm,says Kaiser Family Foundation CEO Drew Altman, referring to the higher percentage of health care costs employees have to share.

Honestly, this is good news, sort of.  I don't like the coercion and lack of choice, but the main problem with health care is that the person receiving the benefits is not the person paying the bills, which means there is no incentive to shop or make care tradeoffs.  Higher deductibles mean more people are going to be actively shopping and caring what health services cost, and that is a good thing for prices and health care inflation.

On Firefox and Wedding Photographers

The OK Cupid website is protesting the Mozilla CEO's past donations to anti-gay-marriage campaigns by asking visitors to use something other than Firefox to browse their site.  Readers will know that I have actually led a past Equal Marriage effort in Arizona, so while sympathetic to the cause here, I don't think I would go so far as to block a browser to my website.  Establishing this precedent that I would boycott services and products based on the political views of company employees (which is the issue here, Mozilla does not have any official position on gay marriage that I know of), I could consume my whole life doing research.  And then I would be stuck with questions like "Are the gay marriage opinions of the Firefox CEO better or worse than Google/Chrome's enabling of censorship in China?  As I have told some folks before, if I really wanted to do do business only with those who agree with me politically, I would find myself stuck for life listening to a couple of Rush albums and watching Firefly and Wire reruns all day.

But anyway, OK Cupid is a private company and I presume they do this with their owner's approval so all's fair in conducting commerce or choosing not to conduct commerce.  Except that just a few weeks ago everyone was arguing that photographers should be forced to serve gay weddings even when they do not wish to do so.  Is this any different?  If we are going to establish a public accommodation standard that a business cannot turn away customers based on political or religious preferences, then don't we have to enforce that in a value-neutral way?

November Obamacare Exchange Numbers in an Easier to Read Format

As I did in October, here are the Obamacare Exchange activity numbers to date, based on their recent report.  Hopefully this presentation is a lot clearer than the report.

I know the nomenclature is kludgy, but it is the report that is a pain to work with.  No CEO would ever let one of his business units get away with this garbage.  The report shifts from visitors and applications to people covered by applications, presumably to pump the numbers up.  This means, for example, that the 364,682 number of people who have selected a plan is actually the number of people covered by plans that have been selected (yeah, awkward, I know).  Given that they have on average 2 people covered per plan in their application pool, the actual number of selected plans is half this number.

That is the kind of cr*p one has to put up with in this report.  Further, there is no actual enrollment data, just number of people who have put a plan in their online shopping cart.  Worse, they have a split of subdidized vs. unsubsidized in their applicant pool, but not for the plan selections.  How many of the selected plans are subsidized.  My bet is that it is a high percentage, which is why they won't tell us.  Someday we will find that few of these people are actually selecting plans they intend to pay for with their own money.

The Difference Between Private and Public Governance, Part Number Whatever

Let's suppose a Fortune 500 company went through a rancorous internal debate about strategic priorities, perhaps even resulting in proxy fights and such (think Blackberry, HP, and many other examples).  The debate and uncertainty makes investors nervous.  So when the debate has been settled, what does the CEO say?  My guess is that he or she will do everything they can to calm investors, explain that the internal debate was a sign of a healthy response to adversity, and reiterate to the markets that the company is set to be stronger than ever.  The CEO is going to do everything they can to rebuild confidence and downplay the effects of the internal debate.

Here is President Obama today, talking about the budget battle

“Probably nothing has done more damage to America’s credibility in the world than the spectacle we’ve seen these past few weeks,” the president said in an impassioned White House appearance.

Good God, its like he's urging a sell order on his own stock.   I was early in observing the Republican strategy was stupid and doomed to failure, but you have to show a little statesmanship as President.

Postscript:  

Standard & Poor’s estimated the shutdown has taken $24 billion out of the economy.

If this is true, this number is trivial.  0.15% of GDP (and this from someone hurt more than most) loss from a government shutdown about 4.4% of the year (16/365)