Tag Archives: business models

What’s the Future of Banking?

One significant side-effect of the global financial crisis has to be a major overhaul of the world’s banking systems. They’ve been shown to be badly broken.

 After all, what is the current state of play with banks in general, when looking at their supposed core competencies?

  • Lending – very little lending activity going on, and only to those that don’t really need it (the very credit worthy);
  • Deposit-taking – although this continues, albeit at a lower rate due to the general economic woes, it’s done with caution and concern as the public no longer believes in the security of banks (the old adage about being as safe as a bank just doesn’t apply today);
  • Investment advice – does anyone trust the investment advice of banks any longer?

 And then there are peripheral activities such as credit cards – banks lowering limits, and now even looking at penalising the credit-worthy that pay up their credit card bills on time: surely a brilliant way to chase away customers…

Talking of customers: the issue of customer service is still something that few banks understand – they’re not open when customers want them to be, and are seldom found where they’re wanted. Fortunately, technology in the shape of Internet and Telephone banking is allowing us to work around these limitations.

And yet, the self-same group that precipitated the economic disaster of the past couple of years through the sale of very dubious investment instruments apparently repackaged to hide their source, believes that they continue to deserve multi-million dollar bonuses “to retain talent.”

What talent, and why should it be retained, considering the mess the world is in as a result of their activities?

Now that so many banks have been shown to have an extremely dubious business model, isn’t it time to relook the very essence of what they should be doing?   

Let’s see a complete separation of activities, so that banks focus on banking and investment houses focus on investment consulting – it’s clear that the “Chinese Walls” in financial institutions were full of holes.

Banking needs to be about rendering a service to the community – after all, a prosperous and stable community base is good for the bank’s business, and a prosperous and stable bank is good for the community. Banks need to focus on the business of taking deposits and making these funds available for loans to build businesses, put people in homes and generally provide a secure growth engine for the longer term. The short-term focus that we came to see in so many businesses (see: The Perils of Quarteritis) is just not acceptable.

And this model need not necessarily result in low returns for depositors – look at the success of microfinancing from Grameen Bank (and, now, others), both for the bank and the community. As with everything, there will be some elements that give lower returns, while others give higher returns. With careful, skilled management, depositors should be able to see appropriate returns while borrowers can secure appropriate loans.

It’s time for financial institutions to rebuild the trust that they’ve lost, and return to being of service to their communities again, rather than simply serving the bankers’ own interests.

How Can the Print Media Survive?

As we approach the end of 2009, this question becomes all the more relevant. With a full year of advertising revenues down, subscriptions and renewals declining and staff being laid off to cut costs, there have to be questions as to how the publishing industry can survive.

One thing is certain – the business model of old will have to change. Thanks to technology, people today are relying on instant news – yesterday’s news (as found in the printed newspaper) or last week’s news (as found in weekly magazines) is no longer a saleable commodity, and if the public don’t want to read it, advertisers won’t pay to advertise in it.

Of course, Rupert Murdoch’s recent comments about charging for access to his news online and preventing Google from finding his stories have further fuelled speculation as to the future of the printed word.

However, far from fearing the new technologies, publishers should be embracing them – after all, do the new technologies not extend the potential reach of any publication or broadcast platform to the entire globe?

What’s needed, and what people are looking for, in this info-saturated world is not just more information, but more useful, focused and targeted information. Instead of newspapers all trying to produce the same news for the same geographic audience, focus. That’s how Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, for example, have been able to charge for much of their content – they focus on the news that businessmen need now. If a publisher can provide knowledge, as opposed to just information, people will pay for it.

Just as general broadcast TV has given way to cable/satellite subscription services, providing more focused channel selections, so should publishers look to provide focused services that people will pay for. What’s more, such focused audiences provide a richer platform for advertisers.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that printing is dead – at least not for the foreseeable future. Like just about everyone else I speak with, there’s something about being able to read the printed word on paper that is far too appealing to me. A combination of convenience, feel, smell, I suppose. What I am suggesting is that publishers need to use technology to complement their print editions.

Knowledge has a shelf-life, and can be printed for future reference purposes (witness my stacks of magazines – National Geographic, Fast Company, Fortune, Plane & Pilot, Travel & Leisure, etc.). News, or information, is immediate and best consumed quickly – and this is where the electron should play its part (whether Internet or Broadcast). But, again, there’s no reason electronic media should not drive its audience to print, and vice-versa. I see them as, ideally, complementary rather than simply competing.

News media, rather than cutting journalists, should seek out the best they can find and encourage them to provide knowledge as well as information. Magazines should give tantalizing glimpses of what they offer to an online audience, while encouraging them to subscribe to the printed word (after all, for example, aren’t the images in a National Geographic magazine so much better than those online?). Broadcast media should encourage audiences to seek out more information than they can cover in the broadcast, driving audiences online and to print for this knowledge. And, of course, printed media should not be shy of encouraging readers to enrich their knowledge through broadcast segments, internet updates and the like.

We talk about mankind’s knowledge increasing at an exponential rate, but I suspect that much of this is just the same bits of information being repeated over and over again. We have the tools for a much richer information and knowledge environment and we should use them.

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Putting a Spring into Business Models

Are we thinking wrongly about business models and, for that matter, about the models that apply to many other activities, too?

While most of us think in linear terms, we respond to stimuli in a very non-linear way and this is why our models fail us.

A good example is that of traffic – the way it bunches up and stretches out as drivers slow and speed up, with each reacting to the vehicle in front – it’s much more like a spring or elastic band being stretched and let go, than linear.

Look at how consumers react to shortages of items. It really is much the same – an impending shortage leads to people purchasing a little more to tide them over, while a stock-out position either leads to brand switching or to buying extra once the item is back in stock, so the consumer doesn’t run out again. This, of course, means demand that follow a wave pattern, rather than a straight line.

However, every inventory-ordering system I’ve seen works in a linear fashion, leading to inevitable periods of over-stock after a shortage and accelerated stock-out if an impending shortage is discerned.

Doesn’t this equally apply to investors? Think about how the stock market reacts to news – it almost always over-reacts, whether positively or negatively, and then settles down. Again, although, we expect a “rational” (read: linear) response and our models are built in this way, the actual pattern of prices is anything but linear.

I have little doubt that it is this that leads to huge market “melt-downs” as automatic sales are triggered in response to the over-reaction to an event which leads to more automatic sales, and so on. Look at global stock markets early this year – do we honestly believe that the total value of companies was half (or less) what it had been six or seven months earlier? There’s no question they were worth less as earnings were impaired, but were they really worth so much less? The answer might be found in the big increase in share prices from March – perhaps it wasn’t a bull market as some were calling, but simply a correction to the over-reaction during the last half of last year, and things seem now to have stabilised. At least until the next piece of news…

The answer, it seems to me, is to rework our models to allow for human response to situations: the inevitable over-reaction and consequent wave patterns in demand, share prices, traffic and just about everything else. By allowing for this sort of response and predicting the effects, we can dampen them in the same way that a car’s shock absorbers dampen the effect of a bump on the suspension/springs.

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.