Posts tagged ‘NYSE’

Retirement, From An Entrepeneur's Perspective

A while back another entrepreneur/blogger wrote and asked me about investment choices for retirement.  My philosophy on retirement seems to be a lot different than that of others, and I think owning one's own company changes some of the dynamics of retirement investing.   Note that this advice is not right for everyone, and maybe no one, so read at your own risk.  I publish it because the person I wrote suggested I do so, and after weeks of crazy intense work schedules I finally have the time.

A blogger wrote me about his despair at finding appropriate investment vehicles for his retirement savings.   With relatively equal chances of 1) a long period of Japan-like slow growth or 2) a high inflationary period triggered by trying to avoid #1, both bonds and equities looked bad, and while real estate may have some value plays when things finally bottom out, neither of us has the time to pursue that.  [since our emails, International equities are something I have moved money into, both as a diversification play as well as a way to short the dollar].

As I wrote him in one email

There is still a good chance of returning to normal growth in the middle somewhere, but both those bookends [inflation and stagnation] loom much larger than they might have, say, in my calculations five years ago.  I have trouble figuring out what to invest in when both are possibilities.  Equities?  Great for hedging inflation but suck if there is a lost decade.  Bonds would make sense in that case, but their interest will be low and they will be awful if inflation ramps up.  If I really knew we would get inflation and devaluation, I would be leveraging like crazy because inflation transfers wealth from creditors to debtors.

As a result, I said that my main investment for my free capital was debt reduction and de-leveraging of my own business.  Paying down debt has the advantage of having an absolutely predictable return and it reduces risk.   This makes double sense for me as I have put new expansion investments in my business on hold until a variety of government issues from health care to tax rates become clearer.  (For example, in health care, because my company is an oddity, with seasonal part time workers mostly on Medicare already, no one can yet tell me what my future costs will be.  Estimates range from +0 to +20% of revenues!)

The key to my business, which may be very different from others, is that I make big investments to gain long-term contracts, but once captured, these contracts give my business a fair amount of stability and predictability.  Further, in the latest recession, my business has proved to be either counter-cyclical or at least recession-proof to some extent, as 2009 was actually a blow-out record year for us.  Given these facts, I am able to put a higher percentage of my net worth into my own business as an investment, without having to diversify as much in case of business trauma.  And I prefer this.  Given the choice of investing in a company I barely know on the NYSE or mine, which I understand and control, I prefer the latter.  Also, returns on capital from buying or investing in private small businesses can be much higher (with higher risk of course) than in traditional equities -- see my whole series on buying a small business.

But here is where I really differ from most people:
I take a very different view of retirement.   When I worked in grinding corporate jobs (e.g. up until I was about 40) I was very focused on retirement.  Now that I am doing something that is not brutally stressful,  I hardly think about retirement.   The whole concept of retirement now seems weird.  I have, after a lot of hard work, gotten my business to the point where I can generally work as hard as I want to -- if I don't work hard, the business does not grow but I have good people such that it doesn't fall apart either.  I compete with people who are running businesses in their late 70's who are still having a good time.  I can take nice trips when I want to, take the day off if I need to, or whatever.  My business actually has an off-season so I can be more relaxed part of the year.

My advice to this particular entrepreneur was to maybe reconsider the paradigm of "retirement."  After all, the the long history of the world, retirement is a new concept that is barely 100 years old.

Are you the shuffleboard and golf type?  What do you imagine yourself doing after retirement?  I think you need some protection against becoming infirm or senile, but if you are healthy and vigorous, are you the type to get bored fast?  As an example, nearly all of my 400 employees are retired, but they all got bored and wanted something to do.

Here is an alternative, entrepreneur's way to think about planning for retirement:  How do I work really hard building a business that in 10 years will have a position such that it spits out some level of cash without effort on my part and can still grow if I want to spend time on it.  I am surrounded in Scottsdale by people who have done exactly this after giving up a corporate job.  At some point they took their savings from their 30s and 40s and dumped it into a business where they could still have the lifestyle they wanted.  Buying or building the right company is sort of like buying a bond with an attached warrant whose value is related to how hard you want to work.

As I implied earlier, this is not an appropriate approach for every small business.   The problem with technology businesses, for example, is that they never seem to mature into that latter predictable-cash-flow-stable-market-share phase.  One is always running in place.  One lesson I never forgot from my corporate years:  In the industrial sector, I often saw people making loads of money selling bushings or some such whose design hadn't changed since 1920.  It led me to this strategy:  Find a market with barriers to entry, which may well not be very sexy, and spend ten years battering you way in, and then relax behind those walls.  (As to sexy, the very first two classes of the first year Harvard Business School strategy course were a sexy cool software business and a boring stable industrial product business.  Of course,the boring stable water meters made a fortune, while the software business never made a good return on capital.  Beware of sexy businesses -- see: Airlines).

One other paradigm I would challenge is the notion everything you do as an entrepeneur has to be started from scratch.  Many entrepreneurs have fun doing this but the prospect of doing a bootstrap startup when you are 70 years old is exhausting.   Such entrepreneurs who have had a life of serial startups might consider a new phase in their business career as they get older, when they have saved enough assets to perhaps buy into an existing business rather than starting from scratch.  I cannot tell you how many interesting small businesses there are that come up for sale with a guy who has an interesting product and has made some progress but can't manage his way out of a paper bag and thus hits some growth ceiling.  I bought just such a core to my current business 8 years ago.  These businesses require a lot of due diligence, because they are a real mixed bag, but I bought mine in an asset sale for 3.5 times EBITDA (which is an entirely typical price).  Try buying Wall Street equities for 3.5 times EBITDA!  If you pick the right business, and you are a good manager, there is not a better investment out there.  Again,  see my whole series on buying a small business.

Of course this investing-for-retirement is higher risk, because one bets a substantial portion of his net worth on his own business.  But for those with confidence in their own ability, I find it a lot more compelling to bet my capital on myself rather than on guys I don't know running the Fortune 500.

Spitzer's Legacy

I guess it turns out that compensation deals between sophisticated, consenting adults at private firms are not actually subject to approval by the NY attorney general, no matter how much he grandstands:

A state appeals court on Tuesday dealt a devastating blow to the New
York attorney general's efforts to force ex-New York Stock Exchange
Chairman Richard Grasso to return a portion of his $187.5 million
compensation package.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's
spokesman issued a statement saying he is not pursuing an appeal in the
case. The Grasso case is "over" "¦ "for all intents and purposes," the
spokesman said.

In a 3-1 decision, the New York Supreme Court's
Appellate Division dismissed the two remaining causes of actions
against Mr. Grasso and one against former NYSE director Ken Langone

I wrote much more about this fiasco long ago...

Update:  The AG argues that their real concern was about pay practice in non-profits.  OK, I am sure there are any number of NGOs and museum presidents where there might be real issues with the sophistication of board members.  Go after those folks, then, but there was never, ever any evidence that somehow Dick Grasso pulled the wool over the eyes of financial neophytes on the NYSE Board, babes in the woods such as the CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.  Unfortunately, all these other non-profits tend to be run by folks who are the backbone of the NY Democratic Party.  Even in the Grasso suit, Spitzer had to work a bit to avoid naming prominent Democrats as targets.  For example, there is a lot of evidence that the person most responsible on the NYSE baord for the structure of Dick Grasso's compensation contract was NYSE board member and former NY State Comptroller Carl McCall, but since he is a powerful Democrat, Spitzer did some slick judo to avoid including him in the suit, which still including other NYSE board members.



General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) today announced it will record a net
noncash charge of $39 billion for the third quarter of 2007 related to
establishing a valuation allowance against its deferred tax assets
(DTAs) in the U.S., Canada and Germany.

Not everyday you can restate your balance sheet by $39 billion.  Apparently, if you lose money long enough, then FASB rules assume that there is a good chance you may never use your tax-loss carry-forwards, so they have to be written down.

Remind Me, Why is Dick Grasso on Trial?

Aspiring Governor, self-proclaimed substitute for the SEC, and enemy of Antarctica Eliot Spitzer is about to start a criminal trial against Dick Grasso, former head of the NY Stock Exchange (NYSE). 

And I have no idea why. 

Certainly it has something to do with Mr. Grasso's pay, which Mr. Spitzer thinks was too high.  The NYSE, for those who may be confused, is a private institution owned by some of the richest and supposedly financially savviest people in the country.  The owners or seat-holders select a board of directors, who in turn approved Mr. Grasso's pay package.  I imagine that there are folks who think that the stock exchange is a public institution or uses public money, but it is not and does not, though it does have some quasi-regulatory responsibilities.

The best I can figure it, Mr. Spitzer is arguing that Mr. Grasso somehow tricked these babes-in-the-woods on the board, which include naive and inexperienced people such as CEO's of Fortune 50 companies, heads of investment banks and brokerage firms, and a former US Secretary of State.  Now, I can imagine that the government might have an interest if Mr. Grasso somehow cooked the books to inflate his pay fraudulently.  In fact, the director of HR has admitted he did not give the board all the relevant information, but board members have already said that they did not rely on this person for their information.  Remember that most of the folks on the board themselves get paid in a similar league as Mr. Grasso's pay, so most saw it as a competitive offer, at least until negative publicity caused all the cockroaches to run for cover.

So Mr. Spitzer is starting criminal proceedings against people who he thinks negotiate too well for themselves or are paid more than they are worth.  I am sure glad he wasn't doing this 15 years ago.  I remember getting hired as a new Business school grad at McKinsey & Co. as a consultant for some ridiculous amount of money, and thinking "I can't be worth that!  I don't know anything!  Are they really paying me to tell experienced CEO's what to do?"  Boy, what panic I would have had if I had known there was an AG out there looking to send overpaid people to jail!

The WSJ has a really fascinating editorial that I will link to, though a paid subscription is required (update:  Try this link instead, it may get you there free or maybe here).  The overall picture is one of, if there was a crime at all, the wrong people are on trial.  Here is a taste:

In early June of 2003, when the
membership of the [NYSE] compensation committee changed, the Webb interviews
begin to tell a story of wider board dysfunction. And if there was a
screw loose in this new operation it appears to be not Mr. Langone --
who by all the interview accounts ran a tight ship -- but his
successor, [former New York State Comptroller Carl] McCall. This is a vital point, given that Mr. Spitzer, a
fellow Democrat, did not name Mr. McCall in his lawsuit. What toppled
Mr. Grasso was not the $139 million payment the board approved in
August of 2003 but the later news that Mr. Grasso was owed $48 million
more. Many board members said they didn't know about this payment and
for that many blame Mr. McCall.

The interview notes are rife with comments that Mr.
McCall had little inclination or ability to understand the contract he
took over negotiating. An outside consultant, William Mischell, said
that when he and Mr. Ashen explained the contract to Mr. McCall, "the
meeting . . . lasted somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes, with McCall
making or taking phone calls throughout and not really focusing on the
details." Mr. McCall himself told investigators that "the subject of
executive compensation was entirely foreign to him" -- yet he refused
offers of help to explain the contract to others. When asked why Mr.
McCall was chosen to chair the committee rather than someone more
knowledgeable, Mr. Karmazin told the Webb team that it was an "image
thing" (the NYSE had just instituted new governance standards).

Mr. McCall's excuse for not giving directors
"additional details" about the $48 million or other aspects of the
contract -- which were clearly stated in the text -- is that "he was
not aware of any." That's because, as he admitted, he didn't read the
full document, even before he signed it. Moreover, at least one
director, Van der Moolen's Mr. Fagenson "asked McCall twice to make
certain that all pension plans and other plans were going to terminate
on this date, but stated he never received any updates from McCall on
these issues."

As Mr. McCall went to brief the full board on Aug. 7,
2003, he was given talking points that referenced the extra $48 million
but didn't read these or tell the board. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO William
Harrison noted that Mr. McCall "did not appear to understand the
proposed payout very well. . ." Avon CEO Andrea Jung noted that "McCall
struggled" and that "others were more able to answer questions." Mr.
Karmazin described Mr. McCall as "flustered," and said he did a
"horrible job" of explaining the numbers. Leon Panetta, former Clinton
White House chief of staff, speaking of a later McCall performance, was
blunt: "Carl knew nothing."

The article sums up the Board this way:

The board, which was often
dysfunctional, was stocked with celebrities from diverse
constituencies, many of whom didn't understand the NYSE or take their
responsibilities seriously. Former New York State Comptroller Carl
McCall, who brought Mr. Grasso's contract to fruition, was viewed by
his colleagues as incompetent and, in the words of Goldman Sachs CEO
Henry Paulson, not "financially sophisticated." Former Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright felt she shouldn't "question" the pay; Bear
Stearns CEO James Cayne admitted he "tuned out" of the pay proceedings;
and Van der Moolen Vice Chairman Robert Fagenson suggested the only
real concern was "how this was going to reflect on the Board."

But the interviews also make clear that more astute
board members, such as Mr. Langone, former Viacom President Mel
Karmazin, and former Merrill Lynch Chairman David Komansky, took it
upon themselves to understand Mr. Grasso's contract, and offered strong
arguments for why they'd paid him as they had. "We knew what we were
doing when we paid him. We did it purposely, and we believed it was the
right compensation," Mr. Komansky said in his interview

In this environment, Grasso is culpable, how?