Tag 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?

When Will Interest Rates Rise?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...

Image via Wikipedia

With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.

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?

October 2010 – Another Black October?

a tale of two lottos
Image by jordi.martorell via Flickr

There’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding October as regards the stock market – it’s probably the single most feared month of the year, with the three biggest crashes all occurring (or starting) in October. Will October 2010 be another bad month?

The Great Depression was triggered by the sharp slides which happened in October 1929 (and kept going), although the biggest one day drop was that of 19th October, 1987, when the Dow lost nearly 23% in one day, and then kept dropping for some weeks until finding a new bottom, with losses of somewhere around $1 trillion. Most recently, October 2010 was seen as the worst month for the stock markets after the banking crisis came to light – and the economic repercussions are still being felt strongly in most parts of the world.

Although there was hope that economic recovery would continue throughout this year, there are growing concerns about whether this will happen, or if we will see a further drop – the infamous double-dip recession. Behind this are the questions of whether governments put too much money into trying to boost recovery too soon, or whether they haven’t put enough in for it to be effective; how and when countries are going to be able to afford to pay for the economic stimulation so far given, and how they can pay for any more if this is needed; and whether the idea of such government intervention has been effective at all, or whether the market needs to sort itself out.

I’m certainly not qualified to answer these questions. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone really has the answers, especially given that we’ve seen fairly convincing proof that markets are far from rational as they had previously be held to be. Watching the daily rise and fall of the main indices like the Dow Jones it seems to me that the smallest piece of news is magnified in terms of its impact on the market overall, with billions of dollars being added to, or taken from, the value of companies on the strength of relatively insignificant items.

If this is the case and we go into the last quarter of the year without some strong positive news, will the markets over-react once more and lead us back into a “Black October.”  What do you think?

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Are Layoffs Bad For Business?

View of Wall Street, Manhattan.
Image via Wikipedia

“Downsizing is killing workers, the economy – and even the bottom line.”

This direct quote from an article in Newsweek of 15th February entitled “Layoff the Layoffs” rather forcefully makes the point that contrary to conventional business wisdom, the constant cycle of cutting headcount as a primary means of cutting costs is tantamount to long-term economic suicide – not to mention the effects on the health of people.

According to the article, research clearly shows a link between layoffs and lower stock prices, with the negative impact on the stock prices worsening with the size and permanence of these layoffs – in spite of the widely-held view that layoffs will boost stock prices through showing effective cost management.

Another debunked issue is that of productivity – in fact productivity per employee does not rise, no doubt due to morale issues – while a study of companies in the S&P 500 showed clearly that companies that downsize remain less profitable than those that don’t.

Adding to the profitability falls, of course, are the costs of laying off staff – both direct (severance pay, etc.) and indirect (morale, rehiring costs when things pick up, and so on). These are always woefully underestimated, as is the extent to which companies embarking on wholesale layoff programs have to rehire – at inflated cost – key staff who elected to “take the package.”

In fact, McKinsey studies over the years have shown that company executives believe that less than 40% of corporate transformations in their businesses are “mostly” or “completely” successful.
Conversely, companies that choose to find ways to weather the periodic storms are the first to recover, and do so far more strongly that those that have made significant across-the-board cuts.

Of course, there will always be times when cutting staff is unavoidable in a business – it may even be the thing that will save it from total collapse. But when this time does come, all the experts agree that it should be done in a transparent, open manner, with cuts being made in defined areas, rather than simply across the board – the all-too-frequent approach of an uninvolved management team. Getting everybody from the CEO down personally involved will get the best results, as happened with the well documented case of Malaysia Airlines a few years ago.

Hopefully this message of transparency, involvement and engagement will start to get through to company leaders as well as to the stock market and investment analysts that so many company leaders are guided by. As I mentioned in my blog post, “Leadership for the New Business World,” a new set of skills are necessary for the successful business of the future – skills that will rebuild the faith of communities in their leaders. In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of the top-rated companies in Fortune’s “Top 100 Companies to Work For” list this year have weathered the storm without across the board layoffs, with many showing positive growth in staff and even in their businesses, too.

Certainly, companies that retain their staff, and take the opportunity to hire key new ones, retain all the critical “institutional intelligence” and are best positioned for the economic upswing, as I mentioned in my blog post, “Will your business survive the upswing?

There’s no doubt – Layoffs are bad for your business, especially when handled without due care, attention and precision. Conversely, a covenant with your staff to be open, fair and honest with them at all times will go a long way to securing the long-term, profitable future of your business.

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Small Customers – A Neglected Resource

The efficiency focus of the past 18 months may well have added substantially to the risk profile of companies, while simultaneously reducing their profitability.

After all, efficiency for most means focusing on the largest customers – allowing one to reduce headcount (less people, managing fewer customers), reduce transaction costs (fewer, larger transactions) and, in many eyes, reduce risk (bigger customers are more trustworthy).

However, aren’t your biggest customers the ones that demand, and generally get, the best prices? Do your biggest customers not get the longer payment terms they request? Are your biggest customers really less work than others?

And what about the impact on your business of the failure to pay of one of your biggest customers? As we’ve seen, they’re far from invincible.

Conversely, most businesses will find that their smaller customers:
• Deliver better margins;
• Will pay more promptly (if for no other reason than you have more leverage);
• Are no more work than the larger ones, and often less so as they are less demanding;

On top of this, the impact of a failure on your business is far less severe, and you substantially reduce your overall business risk by spreading a given value across a number of customers, instead of concentrating it in one place.

What’s more, as business starts to pick up, the companies likely to grow most quickly will be the small ones – a 20% growth on $1 Million revenue is generally a good deal easier to find than a 20% growth on $1 Billion revenue. So having a good number of smaller customers will improve your growth prospects, too.

Analyse the true profitability (return on working capital, including all costs) by customer segment: you’ll find it a very interesting exercise.

I’m not for a moment advocating that you fire all your biggest customers, but rather that you not just focus on larger customers at the expense of smaller ones. As with all things in life, you need to achieve a balance.

Small customers should be embraced as much as large ones – after all, if you have a ready resource that will help you grow faster than the market average while improving your profitability and simultaneously reducing your risk, shouldn’t you make the best use of it?

Keep it Simple, Stupid

What is it about the human race that while we all apparently prefer ‘a simple life’ we delight in adding layers of complexity to everything?

Much to nobody’s surprise, I imagine, a recent McKinsey article, “Consumer Electronics Gets Back to Basics” showed that something like 2/3rds of consumers valued simplicity and price over a more comprehensive set of features. And yet, product after product is designed to have more features than its predecessor – generally at an incrementally higher price or, at best, the same price.

Just look at today’s ‘bloatware’ as an example. Remember the days when Bill Gates declared that “640KB ought to be enough for anybody” referring to the, then, new PC’s maximum memory capacity? Nowadays, you’re lucky to get away with less than three thousand times that much (2GB)! And yet, how many of us use more than 10% of the features available in today’s ‘productivity suites?’ I don’t, and many consider me a ‘power user.’

Oh, and don’t believe that the complexity is simply as a result of more capacity – people have been calling for simpler PCs for decades. In a Newsweek interview back in 1995, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison said that the PC was too complicated and difficult to use then, predicting the PC would soon be replaced by simpler desktop devices – the ‘network computer,’ a no-frills computer/terminal that performs basic chores easily and simply and sells for less than $500. Perhaps Oracle’s recent purchase of Sun Microsystems will enable him to move us all in that direction some 15 years later: Sun already sells this type of device – they call it a Sun Ray.

The big surprise for many vendors last year was the Netbook. Initiated by Asus, this basic notebook PC really set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The form factor was first tried in the mid 90s with a notable lack of success (it was called the sub-notebook in those days), so there was a healthy dose of scepticism when it was announced last year. Acer, as the first major multinational vendor to see the opportunity, quickly produced its own line of netbooks and gained enormous market-share as a result: seeing a significant increase in unit sales last year, just as the downturn was biting most companies. Here was a classic case of people wanting simplicity – what a pity, then, that the software was not also available in ‘Lite’ versions, meaning that many early adopters of netbooks ended up returning to the larger, more powerful machines that could handle the software workload.

But it’s not just in PCs that simplicity is the watchword. A couple of years ago a start-up company, Pure Digital Technologies, introduced a simple, one-button solid state video camera that runs on a couple of AA batteries. This device, the Flip, quickly grabbed 14% of the US video camera market surpassing all but the long-time market leader in sales. It’s a wonderful little camera and perfect for recording those ‘moments’ of life – I know, I got one soon after launch and swear by it. Interesting, then, that Cisco acquired the company a few months ago – is simplicity to be Cisco’s driver now?

This desire for simplicity is evident in many other areas of life, too – look at how people are embracing simpler airline and hotel offerings: companies offering easy-to-use services that do what’s needed at a reasonable price. The same goes for other products, like the success of Tide Basic laundry detergent.
And here’s the key – to succeed, products and services must be well-made, practical, offer the set of basic features that people need (read: market research is critical) and be seen as offering great value. Properly done, this can be achieved at increased margins to the over-featured products we’ve become used to, so increasing shareholder satisfaction along with customer satisfaction.

As the saying goes, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Isn’t this what we all want?

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Will your business survive the upswing?

An article I saw today in SmartPlanet.com confirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time: businesses have over-done the cost-cutting and are poorly placed for the economic upswing.

The fact that leading economists and business leaders around the world have declared an end to the recession is great news. However, even though nobody is talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery’ or quick upswing, the Forbes study of 200 large companies cited in the article showed that leading executives believe the level of cost cutting undertaken will severely restrict their future growth prospects.

As I posted a few weeks ago, short-term business thinking has done enormous damage – and unfortunately this thinking carried through the recession with companies cutting costs as hard and fast as they could with little thought for the future.

While I don’t have the statistics to hand that the Forbes study has, my own observations indicate that perhaps the report is conservative: it showed 22% of executives believing their recruiting/retention policies were not aligned with their strategic goals, while a quarter indicated their training and development programs were similarly misaligned. My observations indicate this figure to be significantly higher – here in the Middle East, training and recruitment all but ground to a complete halt for the first 3 quarters of this year, right at the time when forward-looking companies should have been upskilling and upgrading their staff.

This really points to the core of the issue – the study showing that nearly all (93%) companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, but only 51% admitted to having a plan in place to guide strategy once the economy turns. Granted, the almost all rest said they were working on a plan, but is it not too late?

Certainly it seems that companies around the globe have missed great opportunities to position themselves strongly for the upturn and this is sure to lead to many failures as those that have done so take new leadership positions – as has been the case following every previous recession. The difference this time being, of course, that the recession was far deeper than any we’ve seen in a couple of generations, so the post-recession fall-out is likely to be worse, too.

Perhaps some companies can still save themselves by moving quickly to position for the upswing – taking on top-performing staff, embarking on aggressive training and taking advantage of the opportunities for mergers and acquisitions – but they can’t afford to wait any longer. Investors, too, are likely to severely punish those companies they see as being unprepared for the upswing.

The question now is whether your company will be one of the new leaders or will fail to survive?

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