Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Can countries benefit from having their domestic firms acquired by foreign companies?

When a foreign company acquires a domestic firm, it often leads to outcries of indignation, nostalgia (“another of our once great companies in foreign hands”), and calls for legislation to prevent any more foreign poaching. Politicians and union leaders proclaim that the foreign owners may not be dedicated to keep up investment in the subsidiary, and that the take-over threatens national jobs and other economic interests. “Most governments are reluctant to see their corporate treasures fall into foreign hands”, the BBC wrote in an article devoted to the topic.

But is all this (slightly xenophobic) fear justified? Well, maybe not; at least not on all dimensions. Because we have increasing evidence that foreign ownership of a firm may actually also benefit firms, specifically in terms of their innovativeness. And this increased innovativeness may clearly benefit the host country.

Professor Annique Un, from Northeastern University in Boston, for example, did a pointy study. She collected data on 761 manufacturing firms operating in Spain, examined which ones were foreign hands and what their innovation output was in terms of new products introduced in the market. And the answer was pretty clear: foreign owned firms were more innovative than purely domestic firms.

Interestingly, Annique also corrected her models for the amount of R&D investments spent in the companies, and it turned out that this was not what was driving it; foreign owned companies were not just more innovative because they were investing more. Instead, they were more innovative irrespective of R&D. As a matter of fact, they were able to generate more product innovations for the same level of investment; meaning that they were simply better at it.

The study’s results suggested that they were better at it for two reasons. First, foreign parents seemed to use their domestic subsidiary to channel innovation into the country. Put differently, it seemed a foreign-owned company could tap into its parent’s superior repository of innovative stuff, and most of them gratefully made ample use of that option. Secondly, the foreign-owned companies were simply also better at coming up with new stuff on their own, in comparison to their domestic counterparts. Apparently, something about them being foreign-owned stimulated them to be more agile and creative, which resulted in more product introductions.

Whatever the reason behind this foreign-driven surge in innovation, the host country was better off for it; the evidence clearly showed that the foreign mercenaries stimulated diversity in the markets, giving customers more choice, while raising the bar for everyone. And this is not a benefit we hear many politicians, newspapers, and union leaders proclaim and acknowledge, when yet another foreign corporation is eyeing up their country’s corporate treasures.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Goodbye Pat

It was the fag end of the career. 1975 was the year. It was the fourth test. Chepauk on Pongal day. Clive Lloyd has just begun the journey of taking the West Indies to world beater status for more than a decade. Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge made their debuts in that series. Andy Roberts had exploded on to the scene and was the start of a whole generation of fast bowlers the likes of which the game had never seen.

West Indies had won the first two tests convincingly. Those days, India was not really a world force. India had turned to the Nawab to lead them , once again in that series, for only he could knit a fractious Indian team into something resembling a national side. And how he did. In a game where Andy Roberts was virtually unplayable, where Vishwanath stood alone for his 97, one of the greatest Test innings of all time and where Prasanna, Bedi and Chandra conjured to take India to a famous win. The Nawab was the captain who made it all happen.

Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi was a man born to lead. He was a prince after all - the real article. One of the most handsome men of India, he was unfortunate to lose an eye in a car accident. To play cricket at the topmost level with one eye is an almost unthinkable feat. A whole generation of boys grew up wanting to look like him, walk like him  and mimic his open eyed stance which he adopted because he could see with only one eye. The first true cricketer hero of India.

Cricket was still an aristocratic game those days. But just about. He was the last of royalty who played the game - Ranjitsinghji, Duleepsinghji, Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, his own father Pataudi Sr ,had all graced the turf before him. He carried a princely air about him, that only comes from being born a prince. Nobody would dream of doing a practical joke on him and everybody called him sir, even in the dressing room. There wasn't a sight better than when he led the team out, he with the royal walk and the team following a respectful ten paces back. 

Easily the most desirable bachelor in the land, it was but natural that he married the most beautiful lady of that time. The first truly celebrity couple. He one of the finest cricketers and she one of the best actresses in Bollywood. Mansur Ali Khan and Sharmila Tagore were simply the most glamorous couple in the country. Their children chose to follow their mother into the silver screen - Saif Ali Khan is one of the top actors on the screen. Alas there won't be another Pataudi walking out to lead India again.

The abiding memory of Pat would be the Indian team that he built. Gavaskar at No 1. Vishwanath at No 4. Solkar inventing the forward short leg position where he held some incredible catches. Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra and Venkat weaving their magic of spin on bewildered opponents. And Pat himself patrolling he covers where he swooped on the ball like no one else could - hence the nickname of Tiger. And captaining the team with the raising of an eyebrow. What a world that was.

Farewell Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi. The Nawab is dead; Long live the Nawab, we should say. But where is the new Nawab to hail?

Mansur Ali Khan died on September 22nd, at the age of 70.

How to Destroy Your Customer Base and Investor Confidence

Netflix used to have a charmed life.

This year, however, poorly thought out strategy and lurching decisions are stripping away many of its advantages and making it vulnerable to competitors.

Established in 1997, its founders saw opportunities in creating an Internet-based DVD-by-mail distribution system. It was designed to be a competitor to physical video stores, making it more attractive by offering a larger selection and using a unique IT driven distribution system that combined distribution centers across the country to serve customers within 24 hours at highly attractive prices.

The DVD-by-mail service became a hit, ultimately devastating the market of physical stores such as Blockbuster. By 2007 it had delivered more than 1 billion DVDs to customers. That same year it launched on-demand video streaming service so customers could also select a video and stream it to a PC (and later other platforms) for immediate viewing. The company allowed viewers a highly popular choice of physical DVDs or streamed video for the same price.

Effective marketing and the enviable distribution system led the company to became the largest video subscription service in the U.S., with 24 million customers

Despite--and because of the investments required for--its growth, the company was losing money on its $10 per month price for the joint service, so it suddenly increased it price to $16 dollars (a 60% increase) in July. That significant price change and the poor way it was introduced to customers—especially in the midst of poor economic times, angered customers and created price resistance that led a least a half million to drop the service.

Then, in September, the firm announced it would spin off its DVD-by-mail service and rebrand it Qwickster, leaving Netflix with the digital streaming business. Customers were furious to learn they would now have to pay separately for both services. By downplaying its DVD-by-mail business, the company hopes to reduce distirbution costs and its costs for content by moving content from a per rental basis to per subscriber basis that is more beneficial for the firm.

Netflix's decisions were not made with a customer focus, but a focus on stemming losses that worried some investors. That strategy is dubious, however, and share prices have fallen from nearly $300 per share in mid-summer to $140 per share.

The lurching changes have also made the company’s position seem vulnerable, leading to new competitors to enter the market. Dish Network, which bought Blockbuster out of bankruptcy, is now using it to introduce a competing DVD-by-mail and digital delivery services at competitive prices and Hula and Amazon are reportedly looking a ways to exploit consumer dissatisfaction.

The entire episode is a classic example of why companies should never take customers for granted and why company decisions need to be driven by creating--rather than subtracting--value for consumers.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The hazards of flying

Even if you didn't suffer from aerophobia, there are some non trivial hazards of flying. Missing baggage for example. Or delayed or cancelled flights leaving you stranded in some god forsaken land. Some even allege deep vein thrombosis. Insomnia due to your neighbour's high affliction of stertor could be another. But even the most wildly imaginative sort could not have thought of adding "going to the loo" in that list. But it is now conclusively established that this is a real hazard. Consider the evidence.

Last Sunday Frontier Airlines flight 623 from Denver to Detroit was escorted by F16 fighter jets. Why ?? Apparently two men and a women were seated in a three seater. One guy got up to go to the loo. The other guy stood up.  And the guy spent a "long time" there. That was it. F16s escorted the plane and on landing the three were handcuffed and led off to be questioned. The poor lady did nothing. She was simply sitting and yet was considered suspicious because she sat next to a guy who went to the loo. The wonderfully investigative press even reported that there was a "mile high club" membership application going on in the loo ! We'll let it pass that even a cursory familiarity with an aeroplane loo would convince anybody that such an act is an anatomical impossibility.

American Airlines flight 34 from Los Angeles to JFK was equally bizarre. The F16s were up again. This time, three men were suspected because they were making "frequent trips" to the loo. Apparently there is some standard as to the number of times you can go. For their "crimes" the three were handcuffed and led away.

What about Ryanair's proposals, which thankfully did not materialise, of charging passengers for the pleasure of a visit to the loo midair. Perhaps they might have stuck a notice on the door, not unlike the statutory warning on cigarette packs - "Entering this door would be seriously injurious to your wealth". Ryanair's profit improvement plans didn't stop there. They evaluated removing two out of the three loos on their plane because they could then add six seats, thereby providing an accurate valuation of the service they are providing in giving you a pleasure of a  visit.

All Nippon Airlines tried another tack. They claimed that they were green because they encouraged passenger to lighten themselves prior to boarding the plane. Lighter weights meant less fuel burnt ; so the airline was being very environmentally conscious. Pretty ground crew were on hand just before the boarding gate. Hello; Welcome to ANA Flight blah blah blah. The loo is that way ma'am; if you could make a visit, you will contribute to reducing global warming on our planet. Thank You. Before boarding, please provide proof of your visit !

And, of course, there is poor Gerard Depardieu, the famous, or should I say infamous, French actor. He had many a glass of wine, as any sensible Frenchman would do,  before boarding the plane from Paris to Dublin. And as the plane was about to start, he simply had to deal with the consequences of all that drinking. But no; the stew wouldn't let him get up until the plane was airborne, seat belt signs were off, etc etc - a good 15mts away. What could the guy do. He took the only option - he simply let go. Another instance of the police coming and escorting a passenger out. City Jet, the airline, then rubbed salt into the wounds by tweeting "As you may have seen on the news, we are busy mopping the floor of one of our planes this morning". Another tweet - " We'd also like to remind all passengers that our planes are fully equipped with toilet facilities."

You better be careful, the next time you fly, OK ? There is a new flying hazard.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Don’t be mistaken, bankers kill (but they give life too)

"In terms of power and influence, you can forget the church, forget politics. There is no more powerful institution in society than business” the equally famous as illustrious CEO and founder of the BodyShop – the late Dame Anita Roddick – said. And of course she was right. The most comprehensive and dominant institution in today’s society is business.

Business is more influential than people often realize, simply because it creates – or destroys – wealth. And wealth impacts pretty much anything we care about. Whether you analyze crime rates in a particular country, malnutrition, happiness, or infant mortality; a huge influence is how wealthy the particular society is. And wealth is created by business.

As a consequence, for example, the 2008 banking crisis undoubtedly killed people. Infant mortality is closely related to wealth and consequently an economic crisis will among others lead to a surge in infant mortality, somewhere, in some country down the road. It also means that the strategic business choices made by CEOs such as Lehman’s Richard Fuld or RBS’s Fred Goodwin indirectly but significantly influence the survival chances of some baby boy or girl born on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit. And therefore, whether you like it or not, bankers kill.

But let’s not forget that they give life too. The inverse of “bankers kill” is true too. If banks make wise choices, given their pivotal role in our economies, they can trigger a huge boost to the prosperity of many industries. And the profits, employment, and general wealth created through this boost will really improve the health and survival chances of the baby cradled by her mother somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

Given the research we have on the link between economic prosperity and infant mortality it would not even be too onerous to come up with some estimate of the direct relationship between Royal Bank of Scotland’s balance sheet and the probability of a baby surviving. We could relatively easily calculate the link between profit and the number of lives saved. I could even imagine that the computer terminals that give live updates of a company’s fluctuating share price – which many corporations have dotted across their entrance halls and offices for everyone to see – would be reprogrammed to display the number of children’s lives saved. Traders walking over to their lunch break could have an immediate update of how many baby lives the deal they just closed saved – or destroyed.

A ridiculous thought? Why? Don’t you care (even) more about the life or death of a baby than your company’s fluctuating share price? I am guessing you do. And you know these bankers aren’t so different from (other) human beings. Your company’s performance also creates wealth, and wealth saves lives. Why then only monitor its financial performance? I tell you, the sandwich you’re having for lunch will taste a whole lot better, knowing that this morning you just saved some unknown baby’s life, somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oh no; Not again

Yet another rogue trader has emerged. This morning is ablaze with the news that UBS (a Swiss bank) could have lost some $2bn on account of the actions of one trader - Kweku Adoboli at its London office. Adoboli has been arrested last night and the details are only slowly emerging.  Nothing is proven as yet , but Adoboli might very well join his illustrious predecessors - Nick Leeson of Barings, Jerome Kerviel of Societe Generale, et al in the hall of Notoriety.

Apparently the losses stemmed from the trader placing bets, using the banks'own money on something called Delta One - trading in financial instruments linked to exchange traded funds. To lose $2bn, the trader must have been trading staggering sums of money. Clearly UBS has egg on its face. Quite apart from the massive loss, questions will be asked about risk management in the bank. How could they let such a big loss build up.

The question to be asked is what on earth banks are doing even indulging in such activities. They are cloaked under the respectable heading of "investment banking", but this is nothing other than pure gambling. Is this what banks should be doing - gambling in esoteric instruments that nobody else would even understand ? Banks think that they can build big risk management systems, but the truth is that traders are incredibly bright and frighteningly sharp and they will  find a way to beat the best of control systems. After all, traders often hold their managers and risk departments in utter contempt and consider it almost a rite of passage to hoodwink them.

The fig leaf that this is all somehow a very respectable activity couched in terminology such as risk management, investment diversification, hedging, providing liquidity and such other gobbledygook must be once and for all removed. Banks, if they wish to indulge in such activities, should label these departments as "Pure unadulterated gambling department", "Better than a Las Vegas casino department", "" The Wild Wild West",  "Punters Inc",   "Rogues' Lounge" , etc etc.

Plain English helps. Free drinks served by scantily clad waitresses roaming up and down the aisle is optional.

And bankers wonder why they are unloved by the public.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The mystery called consumer

Of all the great mysteries of the universe, none is more confounding than that of consumer behaviour. You would have thought that it shouldn't be an unfathomable mystery - after all you and I are consumers too.  But no. It is inarguably established that you can even hope to nail down the Higgs boson, but cannot begin to understand this mysterious creature called the consumer.

Take the example of the Missoni collection and the outage at Target yesterday. Missoni is an outrageously priced design house - designing everything from clothes to patio sets each costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. I cannot imagine why anybody should pay thousands of dollars for something that is essentially similar and available for $49.99, but we shall pass over that lightly. Target is a discount store in the US.

At first glance, its not sure what the two have in common - you would have expected that one would wrinkle its nose at the other and the other should be showing its finger at the worthy. But hey presto, the two decided that they would collaborate and launch a limited edition Missoni for Target range. This was on the theme of "zig zag" - apparently zig zag lines on your dress is high fashion. Instead of of hundreds of dollars, you could could get it for $39.99.

Target has been swamped. Its web site crashed. The demand for items was higher than on the day after Thanksgiving or Black Friday; days when Americans go bonkers shopping. Everybody , it seems, wants to buy. Social media is inflamed. That doyen of intelligent media, Twitter, is ablaze. Many criticised Target for not anticipating demand. Many others moaned and groaned. Some boasted that they could get in during the few minutes that the site was up . Some others tweeted that they would get Missoni supported unlocked iPhones. As this post was written, the Target site is still down.

I would have bet before yesterday that

  •  Nobody in the US had heard of Missoni
  • It didn't matter one bit whether the lines on your skirt were straight or zig zag , or for that matter, non existent
I would have, of course, lost the bet. I was dead wrong.

Ah the mysteries of that incredibly species called consumer !

PS- Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that this blogger is rather advancing from the status of  "Sartorius Ignoramus" :)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

With heads bowed

Today is a day for reflection and remembrance. Anything else would be inappropriate.

Recommend browsing through today's special report in The New York Times titled The Reckoning.

Perhaps the epitaph found on the graves of many who fell in the First World War might be equally befitting.

"Their names live forever more".

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Who or what is a Doofus ?

I freely admit to not having a clue about what a "doofus" was, until today, if you will pardon the pun. For, apparently, a doofus is a guy who doesn't have a clue. My vocabulary has since improved by one, thanks to Carol Bartz, the ousted CEO of Yahoo  who called her Board which ousted her, a bunch of doofuses.

Everything about the Yahoo saga stinks. Carol Bartz was fired by her Chairman over the phone. It has brought into question again how firings are done. Not just firing a CEO, but firing any employee. Firing by phone or by email must surely rank as one of the worst blunders you can make in a company. Topped only by having a security guard present and showing the employee to the door. Employees deserve to be told in person that they are fired and also told the reason why they are fired. The reason may have nothing to do with their performance - we are making losses and have to cut costs and you got the short end of the straw, is perfectly acceptable if that is the honest truth. If the employee is surprised that he or she is being fired, then clearly the boss hasn't done his job. Firings are rarely required overnight. You can see it coming and its the boss's job to be open and forthright in communication with the employee. The Board of Yahoo displayed appalling behaviour in firing Carol Bartz over the phone.

Carol hasn't covered herself with glory either. In her now famous mail to employees, she wrote "I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board". She then proceeded to give an interview to Fortune where she has contributed to the increase in the vocabulary of bloggers like me. She also apparently said that " they  f---ed me over". She is going to collect a $10m severance pay but she may have put that in jeopardy because the severance agreement has the usual non disparagement clause (you don't throw garbage at the company, in lay man terms)

Then a pompous know it all (correction - rich pompous know it all) called Daniel Loeb who runs a hedge fund and has taken a stake in Yahoo writes a public letter asking for the Chairman of the Board to go and then naming a few directors who in his opinion have to go too. 

Excellent. With such worthy managers, Board and investors, what chance do the employees of Yahoo have. I am a regular user of Yahoo and its quite good at some of the things it does. But what a mess. Which sensible guy will now be willing to be the CEO. Probably only a guy who has some familiarity with doofusism !

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The wonders of public opinion

Public opinion is often a cause of much entertainment. Public opinion, that is, as reflected in the comments section of a famous website. Let us say , for example, Reuters  reporting  a fairly innocuous news item as follows. You would have thought that there isn't much to comment about it. You would be wrong. Read on for this imaginary post and comments.

Cuba withdraws ambassador from Libya

Cuba has announced that it was withdrawing its diplomatic mission in Libya, reiterating that it does not recognise Libya's Transitional National Council.

Comments (325) 

Amyfalldown - First!

humanist7117 - Gaddafi is a thug. He is in  cohorts with Fidel Castro. He has run away to Libya
Nitinooroo - Мы работаем напрямую с импортерами парфюмерии в Россию, минуя перекупщиков. Это является гарантией реализации без наценок и каких-либо процентов. [url=]Лицензионная парфюмерия производства ОАЭ[/url] – это имитация оригинальной селективной парфюмерии и духов.Настоящая лицензионная парфюмерия имеет хорошее


nicebrunido - %$#*%$ iPhones at half price. Visit today! #(#$@

elitaren - f*****g Gaddafi. b****** Castro. I don't give a s***

goodguy - MMS is corrupt. Sonia is corrupt. Narendra Modi for PM

        jidaspeak - @goodguy - you are a moron. RSS stooge. Go die somewhere

        goodguy - @jidaspeak  - You Porki. Go back to your mulla country and drown in blood

revengeofbutthead - wtf ?

Nihaonyan - This comment has been deleted by the moderator

oldman - The Libyan Transitional Council is a loose combination of different interest groups. So far the only glue holding them together was their common hatred and fear of Gaddafi. Now that Gadaffi has gone it remains to be seen whether they can form a sensible government. Uncertain times ahead for Libya

             lespaulrentals - @oldman - Who asked you ?

AnImmortalLove - Thumbs Up if you typed Viagra and landed on this site.

Padmanvasanth - GOOD STEP HAPPENED...





itshuyzz - People listen to me. Its all the fault of multinationals. Gaddafi was a stooge of Exxon, BP and the multinational oil companies. When he was no more useful, they have deposed him. Its all the fault of the evil oil companies.

Is this what public opinion has descended to ??

I am eternally thankful that readers who comment here are a million miles away from this lot. Truly salute those who take the time to make such informed and wise comments in this blog.
PS - This post was inspired by this article in the WSJ.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Can the world still feed itself ?

When Peter Brabeck-Letmathe speaks, you listen. He is the highly respected Chairman of Nestle. In his weekend interview with The Wall Street Journal published here, he speaks of the increasing danger of food insecurity in the world.

Food prices shooting up, the world over, is a serious cause of concern. This blogger has moaned about it here , here and here . The traditional activist response is to bleat about the evils of globalisation. But here is a world leader giving a simple way forward for what should be done.

His prescription is three fold and simple

- Stop using land for growing corn for biofuel
- Do not maniacally oppose technology in food cultivation, especially genetically modified crops
- Let the market price water for industrial use

I had no idea that this year American farmers would harvest more corn for fuel rather than for feed. This is the outcome of a subsidy policy that has encouraged bio fuel use to get away from the human addiction to petroleum. But look at the consequence for food - a perfect example of how policy in one sector can have serious consequences in another. Single issue activists please note - policy making is complex and interwoven and you can often cause more harm than good by manic obsession with a single issue. If you balance food prices with reducing petroleum dependence, it is not an easy choice. But as Brabeck-Letmather says, we should consider using land only to grow food.

The almost religious opposition to genetically modified crops is , in my view, absurd. We have been genetically modifying crops for virtually of all of human existence. It is called plant breeding. Wheat, Rice, etc as we now it, are all genetically modified. It appears that it is OK to genetically modify slowly, but not OK to modify quickly. World over, there are already laws to look after food safety and there are laws for labelling food containing genetically modified cops. So if you oppose it, that is certainly your right and you are free not to consume it. But to insist that nobody else should do so is unacceptable in my view. Again there is a policy choice. Between letting food prices go so high that some people starve or suffer malnutrition and being scared about the gap between reasonable surety and absolute surety on the safety of such crops. That whole argument has been hijacked by ranting against multinationals, globalisation etc, which is another story and beyond the purview of this post.

The third remedy is interesting. Apparently only 1.5% of the world's fresh water consumption is for personal use - washing, bathing, etc, The rest is for agricultural use or industrial use. Brabeck-Letmathe's solution is stunningly simple. Keep water for personal use free. But let the market price water for industrial or agricultural use. That will ensure that water 9100 litres of water are not used to make 1 litre of bio diesel.

A superb interview which I would strongly recommend for anybody interested in food security for the world.