Category Archives: Investing

Google cars – Sheer Driverless Pleasure?

Google driverless car operating on a testing path

Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a few years ago, the concept of a driverless car was nothing more than science fiction. Today, it is fast becoming reality with Google cars having already covered over 500,000 miles (800,000 km) without any accident while under “robot control.”

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds – the Google cars technology’s still very much in its infancy and the route the robot-controlled vehicle will follow has to first be mapped out with a human at the wheel. It also can’t, yet, cope with snow or heavy rain, while leaving a highway still needs human intervention, too.

However, with the rapid pace of technology development, it’s worth pausing to think about the impact of driverless vehicles – thanks to the revelation of Google cars, on our lives as it’s likely to be an everyday occurrence before we know it. We have the processor power and the sensor technology to make this feasible.

Robots don’t fall asleep, and their attention doesn’t wander. They don’t feel compelled to text while driving, or to show how good their driving is after a few drinks. This is sure to mean fewer accidents, so less people killed and injured. Apart from the human benefits from Google cars, this has to mean less call on emergency services and lower insurance premiums – welcome relief from the huge rises over the past decade.

Of course, the panel-beating, spare parts and steel industries might not welcome the decrease in fender-benders, but the rest of us will.

Going out for dinner will no longer mean taking a taxi home, unless you have a ‘Designated (non-drinking) Driver’ present – Google cars are capable of driving you back home. What will the impact on the taxi industry be (GPS mapping might need to be a little better, of course), and what will the impact be on valets when cars can park themselves while they wait for you?

Thinking further on this – what impact on those huge, expensive parking lots near city centres when your car can slowly drive around looking for something convenient and you can text it to come and find you in, say, 15 minutes? Would road building rates be able to be slowed, too, as robot-controlled vehicles can drive so much closer together, meaning more cars in any given space. Speeding tickets and parking tickets would also be a thing of the past – would anyone really shed a tear for traffic wardens?

But let’s move away from the Google cars concept for a moment. What about the trucking industry? Roads are clogged with heavy-duty vehicles delivering goods from manufacturer to wholesaler, to retailer and to the end-user. Imagine a time when you could have fleets of driverless trucks – owners would get far better utilisation from vehicles that don’t need drivers to rest or sleep, longer routes could be planned and busy roads could be navigated only in quiet times (3 am, for example) where necessary.

Of course, having a robot-controlled car is one thing – having a robot-controlled 50 ton, 18-wheeler is likely to spark a good deal more concern. An intermediate step may be to use remote drivers (‘drone technology’)  until the vehicle reaches the highway and meets up with other trucks, that can then travel in convoy under control of a single remote driver, or even a lead human driver controlling a number of trucks behind.

What is clear is that motor manufacturers will increasingly be moving away from “Sheer Driving Pleasure” as a strapline, and be looking to features such as entertainment, comfort and – for long journeys – even sleeping facilities, perhaps. Perhaps Google cars are by no doubt a forecast of how the future looks for the motor vehicle industry.

Perhaps sleeping in the car will become a status symbol…

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 Jul.

Should the Euro Survive?

Spanish Euros

Image by Gadget Virtuoso via Flickr

There’s been an enormous amount of ink used on the ‘veto’ that David Cameron used in Europe last week, with warnings of dire consequences if the UK doesn’t help to support the Euro.

Frankly, I don’t understand this as the Euro has been doomed since introduction in January 1999. In fact, the 10th anniversary of the release of Euro banknotes and coins on 1st January, 2002, would be a great time to announce its departure as a central currency.

“Heresy” I hear being loudly cried… But the facts are simple – for a central currency to work, it needs central control, and Europe doesn’t have this. Sure, it has a hideously expensive, large, bureaucratic parliament that shuffles (at even more expense, thanks to French Government insistence) between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, but all this body does as far as I can – apart from ensure regal lifestyles for its members at taxpayer expense – is create complication in everyone’s life, and silly rules that have clearly not been thought through. What the Eurozone doesn’t have is central fiscal control. A United States of Europe, if you like, where the member countries have the status that individual states have in the USA.

Of course, the reason for this is simple – no member country’s politicians want to be answerable to a (central) higher authority. You can see this in the choice of the European President – a nice enough chap, apparently, but basically invisible, and certainly no “leader of Europe.”

Unlike the USA, Europe is not united in a common history/language/culture. It’s a very diverse set of countries and should remain as such – celebrating the differences, rather than trying to blend them into a murky sameness. It could never support a central government, and shouldn’t.

What it SHOULD be is a free-trade zone, as originally envisaged. The Euro should be simply a currency that exists to facilitate this free trade – similar to the ECU of pre-1999, but actually existing as a currency. Legal tender in all EU countries, it would operate alongside those countries’ own currencies, with a rate of exchange that floats against each, allowing that country to determine its own fiscal policy (as they all do to a large extent anyway – which is what caused the mess) and have the relative value of its currency determined accordingly. Like trade, loans could be made or sought in Euros or a country’s own currency, depending on the will of both parties to the transaction.

The dissolution of the current Euro would be simple – start with each country having its currency at par with the Euro, and let them float from that point. Market forces would soon determine the real value of each currency.

As a considerable side benefit, this would also facilitate the dissolution of the European Parliament saving us all a great deal of money and aggravation.

There would be no need to try to prop up a fatally flawed system and countries could celebrate their individuality while sharing in what should arguably be the biggest and wealthiest free trade zone in the world. This would also mean an acceleration of growth at country level.

Given the Euro cannot survive unless all in the Eurozone abrogate power to the centre – which I can’t ever see happening – isn’t it best to ackowledge the role the Euro should play and move to individual currencies; the sooner the better?

Capitalism – What the Future Holds

Wall Street

Image by Mirka23 via Flickr

The world is in a state of flux.

With the economic downturn lingering far longer than most people expected, governments are under growing pressure to kick-start economies. However, a growing number of countries with looming debt crises and a consequent unwillingness or inability of governments to spend more money hampers this.  And, as the northern hemisphere weather warms up, we can expect to see growing numbers of demonstrations by people wanting jobs or, at least, a reduction in job cuts.

All of which leads to the question – is the capitalist system doomed?

I don’t believe for a moment that this is the case – history shows that capitalism is the most effective way for countries and people to grow their wealth – but I do think we’re going to see some far-reaching changes.

Back in September 2009, I suggested in my post, “The Perils of Quarteritis” that the short-term thinking so prevalent in recent years had contributed significantly to the crash, and that businesses would move to a longer-term, more strategic model.

The March 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review has a wonderful paper, “Capitalism for the Long Term,” by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company where documents his findings from 18 months of research and hundreds of meetings with business and government leaders. In this paper, Barton makes 3 points to support his conclusion that capitalism must survive, but that it needs to change, too:

  1. A return to longer-term thinking by companies, investors and politicians alike – he refers to this as “The Tyranny of Short-Termism” (my version was Quarteritis).
  2. That there is no difference between serving the interests of shareholders and of stakeholders – in spite of a more recent belief that serving stakeholders made shareholders poorer, managing for long-term value growth benefits not only stakeholders and society but shareholders, too.
  3. Company executives and boards need to act more like owners, not temporary care-takers – as by doing so they will naturally look to the long-term and so benefit the company, its shareholders, its stakeholders and society as a whole.

Basically, it all comes down to taking a longer-term view of business (as well as the economy, in the case of government) and a consequent change in leadership style, too – see my post of November 2009, “Leadership for the New Business World.”

This longer-term thinking and more inclusive leadership approach will ultimately be to the benefit of all – investors, executives, employees and society as a whole.

What do you think?

Update (31Mar11): Read the Leadership Interview with James Quigley of Deloittes, just out at N2growth.com – leadership is about trust and looking to long-term sustainability.

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that although many companies, and almost all large ones, grow through mergers and acquisitions, most of these result in a decline in overall value, rather than the envisaged increase?

In the lead-up to such activity – the “engagement period” if you like – shareholders are shown clearly the benefits that the merger or acquisition will bring: lower overall costs, great (combined) market share, stronger sales teams, more experienced management in the combined entity, and so on. All of which is supposed to lead to greater overall value for the shareholders – a case of the proverbial 1+1 resulting in a good deal more than 2.

The reality is, far too often, startlingly different with 1+1 adding up to a good deal less than 2. In other words, significant shareholder value is lost in the process.

Naturally, there are many reasons for this decline in value – most commonly those resulting from a attempt to merge two very different corporate cultures and the consequent fall-out. And much of this happens in the board room.

I’ve seen many cases of incompatible cultures clashing in boardrooms, although I’m fortunate to have avoided this first-hand. Too often, the newly constituted board in an M&A situation will have directors drawn from the two companies proportionate to the value of each part in the transaction and so the acquirer will seek to dominate the acquiree, even when the reason for the acquisition (as is often the case) is that the latter has qualities the former believes is missing from its own company. The result is the departure of the very expertise being acquired and the consequent drop in overall value.

It seems to me that there is one reasonably simple way to increase the likelihood of success – and that is to increase the size of the overall board with the appointment of further Independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) when companies are undertaking mergers and acquisitions.

The Corporate Governance Code states “Except for smaller companies, at least half the Board, excluding the Chairman, should comprise Non-Executive Directors determined by the Board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent Non-Executive Directors.”  But how many companies actually carry this through?

Should this strong recommendation not be even more strictly adhered to during the M&A process? Bringing a substantial body of independent, experienced NEDs to a board can reduce the level of infighting and help to ensure that the talent/expertise being acquired stays in the transaction.

As we see the global economy slowly recovering, we can expect to see a strong increase in M&A activity as companies seek to assure their future positions while values are still relatively low. This is the time for boards of companies – large and small alike – to become more independent.

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Can Twitter Really Drive Investment Decisions?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

A group of hedge-fund managers are launching a multi-million dollar hedge fund next month, using Twitter as its market indicator to determine sentiment and to thereby make investment decisions.

This information came from a recent article on CNBC / Yahoo Finance which quoted Derwent Capital Markets – a London-based hedge fund – as saying it had successfully marketed the new venture, officially called the Derwent Absolute Return Fund, to high net-worth clients and had attracted over £25 million in investments.

The company is confident it can achieve returns of at least 15-20% per annum by analyzing information gathered from over 100 million tweets each day, which the firm brands as “The 4th Dimension.”

On the face of it, this may sound like a risky, or even crazy, venture – but is it?

Let’s face it, the concept of rational markets has been comprehensively debunked during the last few years of economic crisis, and the global growth in wealth came to a dramatic end largely through a change in general sentiment. We’ve also seen plenty of allegations – many apparently backed by evidence – of collusion between those in research and those in investment banking to pump stock prices of certain companies at various times. In fact, based on this and my own experience, it seems that relying on the “experts” to manage your investments is no greater guarantee of success than simply using a general market-tracking fund – and often provides worse returns.

Furthermore, most people agree that we won’t see real growth return this cycle until consumer confidence picks up. Isn’t that really just about general market sentiment?

So contrary to some of the views on this fund, I would argue that this is a smart bunch of people – what they’re doing is using current technology to gauge market sentiment and make investment decisions from there.  Instead of listening to a small group of people to try to understand what “the man in the street” is saying, they’re tapping into the collective feelings of millions.

I see this as the start of a whole new way of tapping into societal collective wisdom and sentiment. What do you think?

The Perils of ‘Quarteritis’

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE (Photo credit: Financial Times photos)

It appears that one potentially good thing to emerge from the global economic meltdown is a return to sensible business planning and cycles.

One of the scourges of many businesses – this started in the US and spread out from there – is ‘Quarteritis.’ Not strictly speaking a disease, but something that has probably resulted in a lot more suffering than most diseases, ‘Quarteritis’ is about an overarching focus on ensuring each quarter’s financial results are significantly better than those of the quarters that went before.

While we all want to be part of, and invest in, businesses that have good growth, the fact is that business, like most things in life, moves in cycles and the best long-term businesses are those that plan for the long-term, not just the next quarter. A short-term focus leads to rash decisions, decisions that might be good to “save this quarter” but disastrous in the medium term.

To illustrate: in the IT industry two popular results of this are distributors being forced to take huge amounts of excess inventory in a quarter (“channel stuffing”), or new distributors/resellers appointed suddenly to get a new stock order into the current cycle.

Both of these have similar results over succeeding quarters – reduced profitability for all concerned, stretched payment terms, credit limit issues meaning needed products cannot be ordered and, potentially, delays in releasing new products while excess inventory is moved out of the channel.

By taking the longer-term approach to ensuring that all parties in the channel can grow profitably, vendors may not grow as quickly in the short-term but will ensure happier customers – at all levels in the supply chain – and so more loyalty and a more sustainable growth well into the future.

Wasn’t it this short-term focus – albeit in the financial markets this time – that ultimately caused the current crash? Executives and others were induced by means of massive bonuses to find ways to grow well above the market average and so started giving mortgages to those that could never afford them, and repackaging these as “high quality” loans. Frankly, this would have been considered fraudulent in many places – it’s certainly ethically very bad anywhere – and it was only a matter of time before implosion happened.

However, those involved had already taken their money and run… Isn’t it this short-term bonus-driven culture that’s behind the trend to shorter and shorter tenure by CEOs of public companies? Can CEOs really be effective when they’re only in place for a few years?

It’s time we started looking at the longer term sustainability of business, and rewarding people in ways that encourage this and I, for one, am pleased to see a number of governments leaning in this direction. Authorities and shareholders should claw back bonuses paid for fraudulent practice, especially when taxpayers have to bail out the companies as a result. CEOs, and other officers, should be rewarded, and lauded, for long tenure and sustained growth.

Business needs to get back to a solid footing and good practice – we should support those that are trying to move in this direction.

Amazon

Amazon (Photo credit: topgold)

This blog piece was first published in Sep 2009, so it’s good to see that there’s growing acceptance of the need to look longer-term as this video from INSEAD clearly points out – Prof. Javier Gimeno talking about how “short-termism” undermines a company’s long-term competitiveness.