Showing posts with label business analysis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label business analysis. Show all posts

Monday, May 30, 2022

Stock Picking: The Game Within The Game

It is important to understand the game you’re actually playing in all endeavors. In stock picking among other areas of active investment many times the game that is being played is not the one that is at first perceived. It is also not always the one commonly believed or advertised to be being played. 

Goldman Sachs is on the other side of grandma's trade. Grandma and her investment club might have been putting in some pretty good research, but they’re very unlikely to outperform the models and information advantage a firm like Goldman Sachs will have. 

As general investors selecting exposure to the market when we evaluate Goldman Sachs, we evaluate them against the market. That is the correct benchmark for a potential or current investor as that is the central question: Am I better off investing with this particular active stock picker or is there another that can do a better job including using a passive index fund? Perhaps more appropriately and completely the question really is: Is the performance Goldman Sachs delivered appropriate for the risk taken, and could I have achieved as good or better results with as much or even less risk? 

That is the game we are playing when we choose investment in a fund manager, but that is not the game that Goldman Sachs, a fund manager, is playing. Goldman Sachs is not trying to beat the market per se. Goldman Sachs and more precisely specific fund managers within the large organization that is Goldman Sachs are trying to beat grandma and her investment club along with all the other relatively novice investors in the market. 

Personally as a wealth manager I am trying to help clients reach financial goals by investing so that their risk-adjusted return is appropriate for them. That is the game I am trying to play--rather than trying to beat the market, I am trying to match their risk/return exposure to their goals. That might mean using a Goldman Sachs fund if I think it is the best option in that specific area. 

Yet clients often don't want to play that game. In wealth management one of the more frustrating things to deal with is competing against mythical portfolios that clients think exist. An example of which might be when a client is told stories at the country club or down at the barbershop about how great someone else’s portfolio is performing. 

It is very difficult to compete against a phantom. Floyd in the barbershop is probably not doing as well as he claims. In fact it is very likely Floyd is under performing the competition because the competition for Floyd is Goldman Sachs among others. 

For Floyd to feel good with his investments, he only has to compare himself to those decisions he happens to remember along with hypothetical investments he did or did not choose to make. Floyd’s benchmark is cash and imagination. 

For Goldman Sachs to succeed they specifically have to beat most of the Floyds out there and only loosely do they need to keep up with the market. In the long run they probably don’t stand a chance against the market but in the long run that’s not who they really are competing against. 

For those of us who want to be investors with Goldman Sachs, the proper benchmark to compare them to is the market. But the bottom line for Goldman Sachs is a benchmark against Floyd, and Floyd never stood a chance. 





Saturday, May 14, 2022

Knowing Your Business Means Knowing Your Costs

[Sister post to The Accountants Can't Make You Rich; consider this the counterpoint to that post.

To understand your business, you have to understand your costs--at a total, average, and incremental level. Many small businesses that would otherwise be successful fail for lack of this understanding. Think of a restaurant that clearly has a sufficient level of customers but that nonetheless closes its doors permanently. 

To be sure, many businesses manage to stay alive and in some cases thrive despite anyone understanding their fundamentals, but these examples are rare and fleeting. More often what seems to be operators flying blind are actually people with some combination of magnificent instincts and great muscle memory honed by years at the treacherous helm. 

Truly understanding the underlying drivers of costs unlocks the ability to guide all manner of vital decisions: what to make and how much, how to shrink when necessary, where you can discount and where you cannot, where to expand operations and what to expect from growth, etc.

Cost per the relevant unit is as essential as it is boring to all but a few of us, an elite group who relish mastering the concept. The good news is there are only two difficult parts to that equation, but the bad news is the same. 

Cost is an elusive concept. Defining cost properly is where economics meets accounting. Here we must understand variable versus fixed costs, marginal versus average versus total costs, the thresholds of cost expansion/contraction (At what point of production must we build an entirely new production plant? If we shutdown a production line, how are costs affected?), cost drivers and probable variances, etc.

Defining the unit(s) that is relevant is the art of cost accounting. For example in hotels it starts with the units for sale as seen in the revenue metric REVPAR (revenue per available room). While there are other important metrics beyond that one in that particular industry, the available room is foundational since that is the essence of what a hotel is selling.* 

In defining the relevant units we must understand if the units are variable or fixed, if the units are fully or partially or not at all under our control, how the units behave independent of cost (think of seasonality, etc.), when certain costs (or revenues) do and do not apply to various units. In the last case consider a restaurant where the cost applied per table seat available might be separated from the cost applied per bar seat available even though we would still want to look at them in totality. Hence a mythical unit might be created to synthetically mimic the real units on an aggregate basis--e.g., cost per customer spot available.

Not complicated enough? Add in a dimension of time. Open a restaurant an hour longer each night--do your relevant units change? Cost certainly will. Depends on how you define units given the objective you're trying to actually measure. 

From cost we next need to know revenue from which point we can understand profit. Allow me to illustrate using a personal anecdote from my time as a financial analyst at a newspaper. 

One of the reasons I was hired was to understand the cost and revenue drivers as profit margins had begun shrinking in the industry. I like to say that a fat profit margin hides a lot of bad decisions. The newspaper industry was no exception. Quite a few things were able to be tried that once a thorough analysis was conducted turned out to not be as successful as expected or believed to be. This isn't a bad indictment per se. Success in business is built on a mountain of well-placed failures. 

Of all the things I was asked to do, I was never explicitly asked to determine the specific attribution of the company's profits--meaning what lines of business were profitable. Yet this seemed a natural thing to want to know. In fact it fascinated me. To everyone else it was obvious or uninteresting. They simply "knew" what was profitable. Profits were so big, heck, everything was profitable, right? That was intuitive to some but not to me. My intuition was the opposite--I knew that it would be highly unusual for everything that went into a bundled product to be profitable in the sense of direct attribution. 

There seemed to be two biases at work: a fear of knowing the answer (what if my area isn't profitable?) and a lack of critical thinking (look at how much revenue this generates/this is an essential part of the business; it must be profitable). 

Once I achieved a strong understanding of the company's cost, it became apparent that everything simply could not be profitable. There were vast differences in revenue by various business lines but very little differences in properly allocated costs. Applying revenue minus cost (i.e., profit) business line by business line would "use up" the profit before all the areas were covered. Before mentioning the areas that were profitable, a caveat is needed. The newspaper was a bundled product meaning everyone got the main section, the sports section, the monthly special sections, the inserts, the classifieds, etc. A point of near religious dogma in the industry was how vital nearly all of these components were to a successful bundle. So I was both risking heresy as well as producing an analysis that the very cost-conscious management team might misinterpret much to its own demise. Loss leaders is a very real and healthy business practice as is cross subsidization. But these concepts can also be co-opted to excuse bad mistakes were money is lost for no actual indirect gain.

Everything wasn't profitable. Out of nearly a hundred different product lines and sublines, only four areas accounted for 100% of the profit of the business: preprint inserts, national ROP ads (when a company like American Airlines ran a full-page newsprint ad), color ink (a big upsale item), and employment ads in the classified section. This meant all the other ads in the main, sports, business, and other newsprint sections including special sections were losing money. All the rest of the classified section outside of employment ads were losing money--ad areas like traditional for-sale listings, automotive ads, real estate ads, etc. The circulation revenue was not covering costs. Subscribers were not paying enough to cover the cost of delivery much less any content production. 

The entirety of this analysis was not a complete surprise to the seasoned people at the helm of the paper, but the details were revealing and eye-opening. To repeat and be fair, this did not mean that people like the guys selling automotive ads weren't adding value--they certainly were. But what they were adding was content value much like the guys writing the sports columns. The upshot was that a limited decision-making mantra could have been "How will it help increase preprints, national ROP, color, or employment ads?" If the answer was "it wouldn't", the right decision would be to reject the proposal.

Knowing cost is not easy; so a good deal of respect is owed the business people of the world who work hard to master it. This might start with the cost accountants I was slighting in the prior post, and it certainly ends with all those entrepreneurs, business middle managers, and captains of industry toiling away so cost is never unknown.





*There are always exceptions. Some hotels are selling experiences outside of the room itself. The room might not correspond tightly to variable costs or to revenue. However, usually even when there are multiple lines of business (think Las Vegas hotels), these still are broken down per available room as it corresponds to cost and revenue as tightly as any other unit.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Accountants Can't Make You Rich

In business cost per unit may be the ultimate metric. Accountants focus on in decreasing the numerator. Marketers focus on increasing the denominator. 

It is important to remember, though, that cost containment is not a growth strategy. Accountants almost never remember this. However, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for long-term success. This is true of economies, firms, and individuals. In a future post I will explore this giving the importance of the metric its due.

You can't grow your wealth by harvesting investment losses--you can't just "write it off" after all. Reducing unnecessary costs is an important part of sustaining a firm, but it is not a complete recipe of a succeeding firm. This is why so many mergers and acquisitions fail to add value. Cost reductions through economies of scale are generally very difficult to realize, and even when they are realized, they are often temporary. Ultimately, successful mergers come down to realizing synergies for new growth without cost exploding. Compounding the problem of pulling off a successful merger (one that justifies the purchase price of the target being acquired) is that the hoped-for synergies prove in many cases to be imaginary and as often unforeseen at the outset--more luck than skill.

Looked at from a broader view, a society with high savings and poor investment will be an impoverished people who are soon forgotten. To be clear the alternative isn't simply live for today, but at least those of the Bacchanalia had a good time while it lasted. The miser who squirrels away his every penny under the mattress has nothing to show but a desire for yesterday's purchasing power.

The cost reduction impetus gets maximized in a recessionary environment. Firms and individuals tend to look inward in times of economic stress thinking more and more about how to voluntarily shrink to avoid forced shrinking. This can be both helpful and healthy. Yet taken to extreme, which can come quite easily, this becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop. 

The cutbacks one should make are reductions in consumption. This is a lot easier at the individual and family level than at the firm level. Firms shouldn't have "consumption" per se. To the degree they do this is simply excess that should be trimmed away in any environment--easier said than done of course. Investment choices may and likely should change given changes to near-term outlooks. At the same time the risk of overcorrection is very great. 

An asset allocation should be largely immune to changes in the investment near term. The investors "going to cash", "moving to the sidelines", and selling out otherwise in times of stress in the financial markets are almost always making critical mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are permanently devastating

Back to the general concept of keeping the accounting department happy, accountants usually aren't thinking in terms of calculus--only calculations. What I mean by that is they aren't looking at rates of change and the signs on the derivatives. Lest we degrade them unnecessary, the marketing department's version of calculations can amount to astrology mixed with magical wishes. At least the accountants are doing real math.

Those exaggerations aside keeping an eye on cost is essential. Focusing entirely on cost is deadly.



Sunday, February 20, 2022

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Portfolio


Imagine being an architect for a couple wanting to build a dream house. Their sentiment and emotions would influence what they asked for, but your job  includes a need to keep them within reason (not too big (or fancy) and not to small (or modest in terms of amenities)—basically Goldilocks).

Now image that they want to argue with you about how certain features should look, about how large certain rooms need to be, about what it takes to be within code and best practices, even about structural and engineering issues. Now complicate it by making yourself somewhat unsure about some of these answers and downright ignorant about the underlying truth of, say, why certain designs will likely work better for structural integrity than others. You must win the initial bid and keep their confidence throughout the project without misleading them or giving them what they think they want without regard to the tradeoffs, the downsides.

Financial management and financial planning is a lot about being the architect and general contractor for some principal (individuals, families, organizations, et al.) who probably wants more than they can reasonably afford and wants to achieve it with unreasonable certainty. Being a financial advisor means always having to say you're sorry.

This is not a rant. Clients are trusting you with their money--potentially all of their financial wealth. For many like individual retirees this will be all their potential wealth too because they are no longer able to work. For others their capacity not to mention willingness to go back into the workforce would leave them only with a fraction of the wages they are entrusting you to earn for them with, let me remind you, their money. They may not know what they do not know, but part and parcel with that is they do not know it. 

Oh, and one more thing: you as their advisor may not know what you think you know about them. It is a continual discovery process seeking to learn and refine and revise what goals they are trying to achieve and what constraints and risk tolerances they are subject to. 

Good car mechanics know a lot about fixing cars and keeping them running well. They know basically nothing about where you should drive. London cabbies know how to get you where you want to go (in London). They cannot know if you should want to go there.

Humility and honesty are essential attributes of a good advisor (financial and otherwise). They are among the necessary conditions for potential success along with actual skill in the area of advisement, good communication, and ability to establish and keep trust. Most clients are know they want the latter qualities in an advisor (skill, communication, trust), but in many cases they give little to no importance to the former (humility and honesty). In fact those often repel rather than attract clients. Add overcoming this bias to that which separates beneficial, successful advisors from charlatans and quacks. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

How To Succeed In Business Trying Really Hard

I just stumbled upon something I wrote about 15 years ago--at least that was when it was saved last. I thought I would share it here. Many of these were things I learned and many of them the hard way in my first job as a financial analyst at the Oklahoma Publishing Company (OPUBCO) where The Oklahoman newspaper was the flagship product.

Some of these have a touch of Grayson Moorhead Securities to them, but you don't have to be that cynical. I have witnessed many times people roll their eyes at advice like this only to then make the very mistakes these are addressing.

How to Succeed in Business Trying Really Hard

  1. Be a solution provider. While it is important to have the intellect and experience to identify problems, the ability to create and the courage to suggest solutions is a higher skill.
  2. Make conscious efforts to avoid digressions into the minutia. Keep communications only at the greatest level of detail necessary for meaningful ideas.
  3. On the other hand, don’t hesitate to consider the depth of an issue. Neglecting the full implications of the subject can easily lead to poor decisions.
  4. Balance work and rest in the following manner. If you find yourself looking for excuses to take breaks often or find yourself taking long breaks and feel that you can’t focus on the work at hand, make strides to commit yourself to the work. In this case you are resisting the desire to avoid the work. However, if you find yourself unable to break away from the endeavor despite having toiled for a considerable period, force yourself to step away. In this case you are resisting the desire to trade quality for completion. The result could be an eventual disappointment and may require more work to correct. A well-placed retreat can pay dividends in the form of a new perspective and fresh ideas.
  5. Don’t burn undeveloped bridges. It is easy to see existent relationships you would like to preserve. It is much harder yet still vital to long-term success that you develop and nurture relationships that you cannot yet foresee.
  6. Don’t build a house in which no one will live. Don’t expend resources toward a goal with high theoretical promise but little practical use.
  7. Don’t confuse clich├ęs with sound arguments.
  8. Don’t be a Monday-morning quarterback on Sunday afternoon. The time for second guessing is after the fact not during the game. Corollary: Save your nostalgia for Sunday morning brunch. Make today the good old days.
  9. Take on the mentality of a librarian rather than a firefighter. Where a fireman does a heroic task in a place he has probably never been before doing the work of saving what he can only to leave once the need is extinguished, a librarian begins work everyday doing the same thing as the day before. A fireman eliminates the need for his services. The librarian creates and enables those needs. Business success is built with librarians not firefighters.
  10. Idolize the objective not the process.
  11. Continually work to find the right price. Consider the two major risks a salesperson runs. Both involve leaving money on the table. The first is the risk of selling too few for too much—a price point that is excessively high results in unnecessarily low sales volume and hence revenue. The second is the risk of selling too many for too little—a price point that is unnecessarily low results as well and obviously in unnecessarily low sales revenue. This all seems and is (or should be) obvious. Yet time and again businesses opportunities fail on the basic matter of getting price right including adjusting to new realities.
  12. Don’t try to live in fantasy land. Good business decisions are bounded by practicality. However, don’t let this go so far as to stop trying things that will fail. Just put practical limits on the extent of the possible failures. Success is built on a thousand small failures. Complete failure comes from one or two unbearable risks that go bad.
  13. Understand the Law of Categorical Gravity: Firms within the same industry or complementary industries tend to locate near one another in time and space. And as they get closer and closer they are attracted to one another with greater and greater force. In this way they act as immediate substitutes but long-term complements.
  14. Don’t continue to bear burdens after they have been lifted: the analogue here is carry-over heat. When you cook a large rib roast, you might want to hit a target internal temperature of 140 degrees. If you wait for a probing thermometer to register 140 degrees before removing the rib roast from the heat, you will end up way past your target temperature. The reason is carry-over heat. After you remove the roast from the oven, radiation from heat stored in the outer layers of mass as well as from the cooking vessel will continue to cook the roast and can drive the core temperature up another 10-15 degrees. Similarly, we can let stress build in our systems even after the stress-causing burden has been removed or corrected. This is as much about internal morale as it is marketing.
  15. Don’t bear burdens by proxy. Is this issue your burden, or is it a colleague’s?
  16. You can’t live at the end of a one-way street: you must be consistent in your principles and actions. It is the only way to earn and keep the respect of your peers, followers, leaders, and rivals.
  17. Learn to ask hard questions and to accept hard answers.
  18. In business writing conclusions and recommendations should be reasonably obvious. A good test is: if removed entirely, could a reasonable reader surmise and write themselves in essence the same conclusion section that you yourself have written albeit hopefully more fluently.
  19. Set aside time to meditate on the big picture. For any major project or decision, take some time to contemplate how the possible alternatives and the potential outcomes fit together with your overall goals. Consider the situation from a strategic viewpoint as many good tactical decisions have poor strategic results.
  20. At the time when an issue arises, speak up sooner rather than later, and if not then, then later rather than never at all. Corollary: Speak in a measured manner and to the correct audience.
  21. In an important respect problems and strengths have quite opposite characteristics. While it is easy to create problems, properly identifying them is a much finer skill. Conversely, the ability to create and foster strengths is always dear, but the knack for recognizing them is a common trait. The highest talent is the combined skill of determining the true problem and calling upon the proper strength as a solution.
  22. A poor reaction to a mistake makes for a worse mistake.
  23. The necessity of scrutinizing one’s own work is directly proportional to the work’s exposure and purpose.
  24. Update! Don’t hesitate to reevaluate your position by modifying or even reversing if new information truly warrants that new appraisal.
  25. Manage your image. No one else will manage it for you. In fact, others will create a caricature of your image—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.
  26. Try to distinguish yourself through your work (not your self-promotion) so as to be seen as an irreplaceable talent rather than a commodity.
  27. Know how to argue, when to argue, and when to agree. Effective, successful teams argue thoroughly, critically, intelligently, passionately, and professionally, but they also know when and how to present a unified front.
  28. Do not solve problems before they are problems. You cannot be a hypothetical firefighter.
  29. You get what you measure. Corollary: Your value to the firm is how you are measured.
  30. Don’t get married to inconsequential ideas. Don’t fight for worthless victories. You only get so much combat equity.
  31. Consider if a fantastic goal deemed too impractical if not “impossible” is because you cannot imagine living there or cannot yet see getting there. Fortunes are made solving the latter problem while fortunes are lost chasing the former.
  32. Completion is possible. Perfection is not.
  33. Employers can mitigate ineptitude much easier than carelessness.
  34. In business you are either surfing or drowning.
  35. Know the source of your competitive threat. In the races we run sometimes we are overtaken from behind; other times the path we have chosen simply runs out with us left exasperated staring at a dead end.
  36. The two fundamental questions in business are: What does the customer demand? How can my firm be the supplier? (i.e., What do you want? How can I deliver it?)
  37. Don’t be afraid to be skeptical of a business practice, but don’t be surprised if there is a rational explanation for it.
  38. It isn’t about where you have been; it’s about where you are going.
  39. If you don’t know the cost of the marginal unit, you’re better off not “knowing” anything about cost at all. Knowing other bits of data like total cost, average cost, an example of cost, will lead to very poor decision making quite often. Those figures will deceive as much as enlighten—they anchor us to irrelevant comparisons.
  40. Strategy is not the sum of tactics; strategy must be a whole unto itself; you cannot back your way into a good vision.
  41. The four essentials of negotiation are: know what you want, understand what you can give, determine what you can take, be willing to walk away.
  42. Just because you need more doesn’t mean you can get more: a revenue shortfall of goal or forecast/budget does not create a selling opportunity. Remember: Update!
  43. Beware following “Best Practices”. Sometimes you are following a leader; sometimes you are following the proverbial lemming who happens to be in front of you.
  44. A business decision’s probability of success is only partly dependent upon the ability of the decision maker. The best business leader in the world couldn’t have saved the buggy whip industry from the approaching avalanche that was the automobile.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Reopening - The View from Las Vegas


As a reward to myself for blogging every day in May, I travelled to the place that is at the same time the most and the least American city, Las Vegas. It had been over two years since my last trip there, Super Bowl 2019. Some observations:
  • It is largely unchanged at first appearance. The casinos are packed. Restaurants are hard to get into. Crowds are abundant.
  • A studious observer will notice that even though casino open tables are full with high minimums, there are numerous ones, banks in fact, that are unopened. My guess as to the primary cause for this would be the labor shortage with depressed actual or forecasted demand as a secondary contributor. 
  • Speaking of the labor shortage, the struggle is real. I can support Scott Sumner's prediction and observation that labor supply is low and as a result service is poor. Let's be clear, everyone I encountered from a service perspective (waitstaff, front desk, concierge, retail clerks, etc.) did a great, friendly job. But service is SLOW. Restaurant wait times are crazy (more on this in the business thought below) and reservations are required--we almost had to slum it one night at Shake Shack but fortunately got into Din Tai Fung (more on where I ate far below). There are empty tables at "full" restaurants--not a strategically spaced COVID thing. Some have yet to open. Calls to concierge and guest services had very long waits on hold. And note this: those enormous signs out front on the strip, very valuable advertising real estate, had in their rotation help wanted ads among show previews, featured restaurants, and "...the loosest slots on the strip...". 
  • One of the reasons I went and took the whole family (more on this in the culture thought below) was to see the shows. Sadly, I was a bit early in my winter planning for this trip as the primary show draw for us, Cirque du Soleil, is not ready to open yet. This makes sense as it takes time to get the band back together so to speak. 
  • Masks were sparsely seen among the patrons. Probably 10% wearing them at most. Various staff is more like 75%. This was different at the poker tables as only about 20% of dealers wore them, but also about 20% of players. For the players I think this was a combination of a desire to use masks strategically as well as California CDS (just anecdotal but supported by several examples--young poker players from California and elsewhere were masking even though they admitted they were vaccinated). 
Feel free to file several of the above under either or both 'lockdowns have long-term consequences' or 'pandemics have long-term consequences'.

Two more thoughts: one on culture and one on business.
  1. People have always asked me when I tell them I'm taking my kids to Vegas "What is there for kids?". The answer is lots, but it is deeper than that for me. The world is for all of us. I don't subscribe to the idea that we should shelter kids in incubation chambers until they are ready for the real world. The real world gets them ready for the real world. Yes there are obvious limits. Yet this isn't simply a disagreement about a matter of degree. I think there are hard and soft lines between what a kid should and shouldn't be exposed to. People including if not especially kids are antifragile. We walked in the heat (108) as well as in the air conditioned resorts. We saw the beautiful people among the beautiful gardens of Bellagio as well as the desperately troubled on the decidedly rough sidewalks. Of course we did not attend a strip club. At the same time I did not hide their eyes at the scantily clad girls (and guys) selling groupie photo ops. Piff the Magic Dragon's show was excellent with the adult language that is not generally my 9-year-old daughter's vocabulary. I think my kids saw repeated great examples from me and my group and many others we encountered that a Las Vegas experience can be great fun while still being responsibly and reasonably behaved and coexisting with bad, excessive, undesired behavior all with the attendant consequences.
  2. As mentioned above, there were long wait times for restaurants among other things. Some of this is a temporary phenomenon that will abate as the reopening completes. Yet some of it is an enduring problem. First some history: In the mid 1970s William Bennett and William Pennington began transforming Las Vegas by developing a more family-friendly environment and a more expanded idea on what the Vegas bundle should include. Add to this the innovations Steve Wynn developed. Gradually the idea that Vegas should be stingy rooms, cheap food, limited shows, and free drinks all with the desire to get gamblers gambling gave way to the idea that these other areas could be profit centers themselves and of greatly higher quality and variety. Then came the metric revolution advanced greatly by Harrah's so that the casinos could understand their customers better tailoring the experience more individually (profit maximizing price discrimination). For a long time I yearned for the casinos to recognize and reward me for not just my gaming but also for all the other revenue I was bringing with me (hotel room, restaurant spending, show attendance, etc.). Slowly this has finally been happening to where on this past trip almost all my high-end food spending is credited to my value as a customer. But there are still unclaimed chips laying on the casino floor. The OG business model dies hard. Our room at Aria was very nice, but still lacked some basic desires. I would have liked and used a minifridge that was not stocked with high-priced items with a hair-trigger system ready to charge me for an inadvertent nudging. Keep that there, but give me another one that is empty--maybe at an upcharge. How about a coffee maker or Nespresso in the room? Presumably the casino is thinking they want me out of that room on the casino floor or at the pool ordering drinks or in a restaurant. However, keep in mind they definitely do offer room service. More to the point think about the tradeoff. Instead of popping a K-cup right out of bed, I went downstairs to Starbucks in the Promenade waiting over 30 minutes in line. The wait outside the popular Salt & Ivy for brunch was >1 hour. This is not productive time for the hotel/casino. People who were not waiting right outside the restaurant looking at their phones instead were walking away to find another place probably in another property. Waiting on queue is a dead-weight loss in need of a creative, profitable solution.
Finally, here are the places where we ate with all being recommendable:

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Seductive Allure of Socialism

The more local something is the more essentially socialistic it becomes. I think the best way to describe this is that size/complexity has a positive relationship with the net benefits of the market (free market principles and market incentives, etc.) while size/complexity has a inverse relationship with the net benefits of socialism (yes, there are benefits). Simply put: the bigger or more complex something is, the more you want/need markets and not central planning to do the heavy lifting.

Intelligent people recognize that they know things and understand how to solve problems much better than most other people. They see this in action locally where it works or seems to at least. Thus, their belief is reinforced. This leads them down a bad path to an unreasonable conclusion that they can guide the world.

Keep in mind that what distinguishes a person as being "intelligent" can be local knowledge rather than pure IQ. Therefore, a local shop keeper may be orders of magnitude more intelligent about running her shop than would be a team of McKinsey consultants. 

Art Carden gives a model, salient version of this. For example, consider the family, the firm, and especially small and midsize towns. The local banking relationship in these places illustrates this nicely. 

The key skill of a banker today is not financial acumen. It was once upon a time at least to the degree of assessing credit risk. But large firms, algorithmic models, and risk spreading have largely supplanted that need. It is still important--vitally important for the bank itself--but it is not primarily dependent on the skill of individual banker. I believe financial risk assessment is a quality of secondary importance.

Rather the key skill of a banker today is relationship building. That is what makes a great banker. Hence, bankers are deeply involved in their communities. Again, this is not new, but it is now the primary attribute rather than a secondary one as it was in decades past.

It is strange then that a bank and its bankers, the stereotypical image of a capitalist (think of the board game Monopoly) are in fact the leading proponents of a road to local socialism. 

Here is how it unintentionally works. First, bankers are deeply interested in current customers' wellbeing and credit soundness. They have made loans, and they want them paid back. Second, they want to make future loans. These same customers would be the easy way to accomplish that goal. This gives them an all-too human impulse to favor the known and familiar as opposed to the new and (perceived) extra risky. 

Certainly bankers are interested in growth and new development. It is just that the unseen has a built-in bias against it. 

How is this a slippery road to socialism? I am not proposing that it formally leads to socialism, but it is central planning friendly. Most directly it runs the same risks of all central planning whether at the household, firm, or governmental level: decisions are made that suffer from the knowledge problem and are subject to the local maximum problem

Bankers are deeply imbedded within their communities for good reason: they want the business relationships and they want to stay close to the credit--all the better to monitor the risk. Yet this presents a sort of capture risk similar to formal regulatory capture. The bankers can easily be persuaded to support their customers' desires at the expense of their customers' competition. 


P.S. When I was in college I had a righteous disdain for kids wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, etc. They were "old enough" to know better. As the great P.J. O'Rourke explains, that is no longer true of kids these days, who are now the same ages as those who I rebuked back in the day.

P.P.S. Iain Murray's The Socialist Temptation explores this topic in depth. For a good discussion on it I recommend this recent episode of Jonah Goldberg's The Remnant




See this for more on the source for the above image and related story.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Annuities - A Troubled Solution in Search of a Problem

Years ago I'm sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop with my wife enjoying breakfast. Without trying to or really wanting to we can easily hear the conversation from a close-by table. It was two young couples. Both were well dressed, but one was decidedly more outgoing and charismatic. One might even describe them as smooth.

They were clearly on travelling together. Somehow their conversation turned to topics that drew my attention. It began innocently enough.

"Well, what are your plans?" or so went the inquiry. "Nobody wants to think about this stuff, but it is important." They were clearly talking about someone who wasn't there. 

"It is hard to know what to do."

"Look, we obviously can't know the future. But with this approach at least you have something to show for it..." Turning to her partner a little too on cue, "Remember Grandma’s experience..."

I don't remember too vividly the exact conversation--I honestly wasn't trying to listen.* It was not a simple case of a couple-friend giving friendly advice. This was a sales pitch. And they were selling the other couple on the idea of long-term care insurance, a type of annuity that has very strict terms regarding when it will be paid along with sharp limits on how much and long payment will occur. 

LTC insurance plans are not bad per se. They can work in practice; though they more frequently work in theory. While I didn't know all the relevant facts in this situation, and it was none of my business regardless, the conversation frustrated me. In fact I was offended. Why?

I was offended because they were using emotion to solve a math problem. Well, more precisely they were disguising an emotional pitch as if it were a math problem, pretending it was a math problem, and not doing or even hinting at any math! 

Presumably there would be some assumption-laden work-up presented at some point before signing on the dotted line. Let's charitably assume there was--that all we were witness to was the initial hook. Regardless, I resented both the approach and the fact that it appeared to be working.

It was a learning moment for me. As analytical as I want things to be, the truth is humans are emotion-driven beings. Many of our decisions are based on feelings. We seek social desirability and find comfort in confirmation. 

This is why confident people are charming. Especially it is so when they are selling us something. 

How you say it versus what you say--delivery versus content. They will remember how confident they were in you long after they have forgotten what you actually said. 

I remembered this story as I read this recent piece from Vanguard, Guaranteed Income: A Tricky Trade-Off. From the summary bullet points:
The math is clear. A certain income can leave retirees better prepared for an uncertain lifetime. But retirees’ reluctance to annuitize suggests that the irrevocable decision to exchange liquid wealth for guaranteed income is about more than math.**
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are two types of people in the financial products industry: those who sell annuities and those who detest them. A derogatory but perhaps not unfair way of describing annuities is to say that they are never bought always sold. Another is that the primary beneficiary on a variable annuity is the sales person.

Annuities work extremely well in theory. They are straightforward instruments that spread risk and smooth income. 

In practice they are extremely complicated, notoriously misleading, and very expensive. There are exceptions. The regulations around them have improved the situation some, but I would argue strongly that this is a second-best solution behind simply allowing more competition in the industry in the first place. World-class fine dining in Napa Valley isn't because of world-class restaurant regulation. 

If you're paying attention, you'll have noticed a paradox. I started by showing that people often use emotion to sell a financial solution but then argued that emotion is keeping people from adopting those same financial solutions. But that really isn't a mystery. If people are reluctant to listen to the clear math supporting annuitizing future income, it stands to reason that emotion will be perhaps necessary to get them over the hump. 



*In fact they were so bad at attempting to be discrete that I can only assume we too were part of the sales audience.

**The Vanguard piece points to fear of regret and a strong bequest motive as the major obstacles to annuity adoption. I liked their analysis, but I don't think they sufficiently considered just how few good, honest annuity options there are. Hard to buy what isn't being sold--especially with fair options that do leave bequests. And it is harder and harder to sell them. Whether deserved or not (it is definitely deserved!), annuities have been given a bad name by all the many investment advisors who rail against them. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Take This Job And Make Me Love It

A few short thoughts on work.

Time On The Clock:

While it is commonly discussed that employees today in many occupations get lots of time to take care of personal business as well as engage in leisure activities while “on the clock”, it is much less discussed how much time “off the clock” they spend engaged in work. The Animal Spirits Podcast (Everybody's Busy (EP.119)) brought this up recently. For many of us after hours and even being on vacation isn’t anywhere close to as disconnected as it used to be—the mobile phone and email has changed all of that. Of course being at work isn’t as dedicated as it used to be either, and the mobile phone has helped change that too. But perhaps the more things change the more they don’t. I assume this was not the norm. What about work golf--in bygone eras was leisure time more consumed by work functions? Or is that an example of leisure time on the job?

What Would You Do For A 10% Pay Cut?


Would you do it for a Klondike Bar? Seriously, while we commonly dream of wonderful jobs with super pay, perhaps we should think about a more realistic trade off. What new job would you trade in your current job for even though it paid in total compensation 10% less? It has to be a real type of job, not Reading-Comic-Books-in-Your-Pajamas Engineer, but it doesn’t have to be actually on offer. The idea is still to fantasize about pay out of proportion to the work. Think about it both with and without a cost-of-loving adjustment. Something in NYC or SAN Francisco might be on my list with the COLA, but there is almost no way something would be without it. Remember that a COLA is not entirely a housing cost adjustment—so maybe those places are still out. Teaching comes to mind for me. Writing does too. Running if not owning a small business might fit the bill. I would just have to forfeit the ownership upside so maybe no. 

Should We All Have Agents?

Thinking about pay, almost nobody likes asking for a pay raise. Jeffrey Tucker has some great advice along these lines. Let’s think about another solution: agents to do it for us. An astute thinker will immediately consider how unions were suppressed to play this role and how inconsistent it is for me to advocate such. Rest assured I am not. This is not about collective action. I am thinking that for business professionals what if all pay negotiations on the employee side were done by agents? 

One big obstacle would be the convoluted employment law structure we have created. Set that aside for the moment. Also, just consider this for certain high-skilled professionals. 

The advantages include less stress for both employees and supervisors, better relations (potentially) between employee and employer as now the agent bears some responsibility for the pay/work arrangement, and more efficient pay arrangements as an agent might be able to better negotiate for pay to match actual value added and an agent might be able to more openly explore options without the risk of burning bridges. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Bundle Is Dead

Advertising-financed, pushed, bundled-content media is quickly dying. For newspapers there are two critical truths: the medium has changed (newsprint is now online), and (much less understood in the industry) the nature has changed (one-way production and distribution of "the news" from one to many is no longer reality). The second point is the more important. We now can have access in depth to a much, much wider array of news and it is a two-way channel, "a conversation" in the words of BuzzMachine, that is many to many many times over. Often this is in a more raw, unrefined form. And it extends much beyond news into all aspects of media entertainment--it's not just Hildy Johnson that we're losing.

Before fretting that this is all a huge net loss, remember we used to have milk delivered to our doorstep--Those were the days! That was the cost-effective method, but it was a lot more expensive than milk is today. As markets evolve, the value propositions shift. There are always tradeoffs. More of everything for less cost is not ever a near-term option. So you shouldn't be surprised when to get the same channel lineup in a cord-cut world you have to pay as much or more than you pay today. Some of us are enjoying bundles that will not for long be profitable. This media trend began in earnest for print about 15 years ago. It began for radio about 10 years ago. And it began for television about 5 years ago, and it is accelerating.

Bundling was a natural and rewarding byproduct of economies of scale--falling average fixed costs created by mass production. But we are progressing past that part of economic growth into an era dominated by falling total fixed costs--Moore's Law has crossed a tipping point in magnitude. As that unfolds, we will continue to see the withering of business models singularly reliant on a combination of high fixed costs as a barrier to entry and the consequent economies of scale in production and marketing.