Monday, February 28, 2011

Wage differences between men and women – sexist or functional?

There is no denying that women get paid less for doing the exact same jobs as men. Ample research has persistently shown that the wages of women, irrespective of qualifications and experience, are lower for the same kind of work. The only thing to be debated is “why?”

Some researchers have suggested that people who conclude from this finding that women are discriminated against jump too hastily to that conclusion, because the underlying reasons could be more complex and subtle than that. We should be more cheerful, and not immediately make such sinister inferences.

The story of firm specific skills

Instead, their explanation hinges on “firm specific skills”. With firm specific skills we mean the experiences and qualifications that employees may build up over time that are particularly valuable to the person’s employer, because it concerns knowledge about its specific product portfolio, a technology particularly crucial for the firm, relationships with its most important customers, etc. These firm specific skills are very important and pivotal because if this person (who has accumulated this knowledge over the course of his or her tenure at the firm) were to leave, the firm could not just find a replacement somewhere on the job market, because they are by definition not skills anyone can pick up at school or at some other employer. Firms, who are afraid that women are more likely than men to resign from their job at some point (to give birth and take care of children) are more reluctant to assign jobs that lead to such firm specific skills to women. Therefore, on average, women build up less of those crucial firm specific skills. Therefore, they earn less money for what seems to be the same job.

I found this an appealing explanation. Because I guess it might be true that employers make the assumption that women are more likely than men to drop out of employment at some point. It also seems quite possible that two people having the same function might not get paid the same salary because – although we cannot observe this directly from their resumes – one of them might have built up more of those important firm specific skills, which employers reward in the form of a higher salary (because they are more afraid to lose them). So, intuitively appealing indeed, I thought.

Clever research: Temporary employees

But, in spite of its intuitive appeal, no-one has actually provided any evidence for it… And that is because it is incredibly difficult to research; it is just very difficult to measure such firm specific skills, whether certain jobs are associated with more of them than others, etc. Basically, all we can measure is someone’s sex, their job status, and their salary – and not much more.

But sometimes that is enough, if you choose your research setting in a clever way. And clever is exactly what Isabel Fernandez – my colleague at the London Business School – is. She decided to examine and measure wage differences between men and women in the temporary employment sector. And why is this so clever? Well, because by definition, firm specific skills do not matter much in this industry. Temporary employees, employed by staffing firms, are meant to be transcient and hopping between jobs. Firm specific skills are all but irrelevant for the kind of work they do. If Isabel were to find equal wages between men and women in this sector, it would be strong evidence that gender pay differences in other sectors are likely due to firm specific skills, and not some evil discriminatory attitudes amongst employers. On the other hand, if she’d even find wage gaps here, it would be convincing proof that we cannot simply attribute gender differences to firm specific skills (which men might have more off) and justify them in that sense. Then, something else (perhaps more sinister) must be going on...

Thus, Isabel talked a staffing firm – specialized in high skilled IT related contractors – into providing her with their internal databases: resumes, client information, demographic data, project characteristics, prices, and so on. Subsequently she compiled an extensive and detailed database on 250 of its temporary employees who, over a period of several years, jointly were involved in 1462 projects across 462 different companies. She measured their hourly pay rate and statistically corrected the differences between them for things such as years of education, specialist training, experience, project characteristics, and so on. Until there was only one variable left to examine: gender.

And she found that, even in temporary jobs, women get paid substantially less than men, for the same type of work. Women earned an average of $25.08 per hour while men, for the exact same job with the same qualifications, would earn an average of $29.66. And we can’t blame that on firm specific skills.

Hence, “firm specific skills” are a nice story – but not much more than that. They belong to the greater works of fiction. Because, as Isabel showed, they do not explain the difference between male and female wages. And that is rather unfortunate, because it leaves us with the nasty but inevitable conclusion that the world of business does on average still discriminate against female employees. And surely we cannot be cheerful about that.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bernie Madoff vs Ramalinga Raju

Madoff and Raju. Both guilty of gross financial impropriety. On a scale that boggles the mind. Both confessed readily to the wrong they have done. In fact both the cases came to light because the protagonist confessed to it. The heat became too much and they had virtually no choice but to come clean. But therein ends the similarity.

In the case of Madoff, the date was 10 December 2008. He was immediately arrested, but released on bail. His case came to court on 12 March 2009 wherein Madoff pleased guilty. He was sentenced on June 29 to 150 years in jail. So off he went to jail. End of story.

Raju's famous letter of confession came on 7 January 2009. After a few days of drama, he was arrested and sent to jail. But then ..... . Nothing. There is still no conviction in a court of law. In fact, there is no sign of a conviction in a court of law. The company, meanwhile, has bee n resurrected in a text book case of brilliant government and management action. They have even settled the class action suit in the US. But Raju continues to remain an undertrial.

India has an extremely dangerous tendency to "convict" a person by media and not necessarily informed public opinion. A primary construct in a society ruled by law is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In India, its often guilty until proven innocent. That's why , in the infamous Tihar Jail, there are reportedly more undertrials than convicted criminals. Some undertrials have spent longer time in the jail than what their maximum sentence would have been if they had been convicted.

Both the investigating and judicial systems must hang their head in shame. Raju confessed to his action. He hasn't since retracted his confession or anything to that effect. The accounting fraud was quite simple and , by now, well established. Is it that difficult to bring this to trial and convict ??

Raju, is like any other citizen of the country. He deserves the right to be tried. He should be punished, but only after conviction in a court of law. The President must issue a dictat - bring Raju to trial in a week and complete the trial in a month, If you can't do it, release him and he should walk a free man.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When too much is too much

Lord Leverhulme, the founder of Unilever, once said long ago - "I know half my advertising isn't working. I just don't know which half". A century later, this still holds true. Throw helluva lot of advertising and hope that something sticks. That seems to be the motto of the lot who have made watching cricket on TV these days akin to root canal surgery.

For those unacquainted with the magic game of cricket, lets just say its a sport about which the billion plus people in India, Pakistan, etc are downright crazy about. Its world cup time (never mind that only 8 or so countries really play the game) and half the nation is glued to their TV sets. The game lasts some 6 hours and you get an advertising opportunity every 2 minutes or so. You can imagine the mayhem that is inflicted on the poor cricket fan.

The game seems to be secondary. They squeeze in more and more ads in between overs such that the first ball and the last ball of the over are considered superfluous . Now they have taken to showing the game on half the screen and running an ad all around it. And to compound the sacrilege, right in the middle of an over, the pitch seems to erupt and an ad comes out of the ground. This is not a cricket world cup. This is an advertisement world cup with cricket in there as a necessary evil.

Yeah; I understand the business behind it. After all , I slogged for a long time for the company that was the largest advertiser in the world. Yes, I know money is what drives the sport. Yes, I know , without this, there won't be a cricket world cup. But .....

There is something called the consumer. The idiot who watches the ad and hopefully goes out to buy your product. Is pissing him off, by bombarding him like a moron, any sensible strategy ? Sure , two billion eyeballs are watching and getting your brand in front of them is a great thing. But then does he even notice, or does he care ? I watched the game yesterday and can't recollect more than 2 or 3 brands although I watched 367 ads ( I actually did the math). Irritatingly the same ad repeats ad nauseum and I still can't remember the brand. One diabolical ad, doesn't even say what the product is - apparently its an attempt to create a mystery by saying "coming soon". Even the brands I notice, have done nothing to stimulate me to go and buy them. So what's the deal ?

The deal is a stupidity called 'opportunities to see'. An advertising metric that measures how many people saw your blasted ad. Of course a billion see it if you air it in the cricket world cup. The advertising manager is feted for hitting the largest number of eyeballs possible (this is the exact lingo used - they care two hoots if its a human or an animal as long as they can catch an eyeball !) They only care about the eyes - the brain behind is irrelevant.

How about a little class ? Don't yell too loudly. don't say the same thing again and again. Don't hit me with your product. Don't increase the volume level when the ads come on. Don't make claims that are laughably outrageous. Don't take me for a moron who has to be stuffed. Credit me with some intelligence. How about making a great product (like the iPhone) and then gently telling me once that it might be something I might like. And leave it at that and let me watch the game.

I may be in a minority, but I would rather not watch this monstrosity aired on TV. I would rather simply read the papers next day. Or else go and see a few matches live. One thing I am sure about. I am not going to buy a product because of that dumb ad they aired.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Equity analysts (and their lunch breaks) force firms to look and act alike

The inclination to imitate others is part of human nature. We imitation our peers’ habits, speech, behaviour, taste in clothing and music, and so on. Top executives, making decisions on the strategies of their corporations, are no different. There is evidence from research that companies imitate each other when it comes to the choice of organizational structure, CEO remuneration, acquisition premiums, plant location, foreign market entry decisions, and so on.

As a consequence, in many industries, we end up with a large number of firms doing pretty much the same things, and in the same way. However, this inclination to imitate does not only stem from top executives’ personal propensities and uncertainties; sometimes companies are forced to do similar things and act in similar ways, even if these ways are detrimental.

Forced to act alike

For example, research by professors Benner from the University of Minnesota and Tushman from the Harvard Business School showed that the implementation of ISO9000 (a quality management system) could be detrimental to firms (because, in the long run, it killed off innovation) but even if a firm did not want to implement the system, it was often pretty much forced to do so by various external constituents.

That is because not implementing the popular practice would make a firm look “illegitimate”. As a consequence the company will be likely to get downgraded by analysts, may find it harder to find customers or financiers, and even the firm’s own employees might start to ask questions why the firm is “lagging behind” and not doing what others do. Eventually, top management may decide to implement the practice after all, even if they have doubts it is actually effective.

One powerful group of external constituents in our society who often force firms to act alike (even if it is to their detriment) are equity analysts. The influence of equity analysts in our business society is very substantial. That is because – as research has confirmed – the impact of their stock price recommendation is very real and significant. Thus, they determine the amount of financial resources available to a firm. However, their impact actually goes quite a bit further than that; because of their power to determine a company’s access to financial means, they also have a substantial influence on what sort of strategy the firm is pursuing in the first place. A good setting to illustrate this is firms’ strategic decision regarding corporate diversification and their choice of in what combination of businesses to operate.

The influence of analysts (and their lunch breaks)

In general, where in the 1960s many firms operated in a diversity of businesses, since the 1990s we have witnessed a reversal in that trend towards de-diversification. There might be good economic reasons for that – shareholders are not fond of diversification because they can diversify their stock portfolios themselves; they don’t need companies to do that for them – but sometimes it does make sense for a firm from a strategic, value-creation perspective.

For example, a company like Monsanto sort of had to operate in pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and agricultural biotechnology because their expertise bridged these different areas and therefore it was advantageous to operate in all of them. Hence, sometimes diversification might make sense. But that something makes sense from a strategy perspective doesn’t mean it makes sense in light of an analyst’s lunch break. What do analysts’ lunch breaks have to do with any of this, you might wonder? Well, it is very important for listed firms to be covered by analysts. We know from ample research that firms who receive less coverage usually trade at a significantly lower share price. Now consider this quote, from an analyst report by PaineWebber in 1999:

“The life sciences experiment is not working with respect to our analysis or in reality. Proper analysis of Monsanto requires expertise in three industries: pharmaceutical, agricultural chemicals and agricultural biotechnology. Unfortunately, on Wall Street, these separate industries are analyzed individually because of the complexity of each. At PaineWebber, collaboration among analysts brings together expertise in each area. We can attest to the challenges of making this effort pay off: just coordinating a simple thing like work schedules requires lots of effort. While we are wiling to pay the price that will make the process work, it is a process not likely to be adopted by Wall Street on a widespread basis. Therefore, Monsanto will probably have to change its structure to be more properly analyzed and valued”. (Adopted from Tod Zenger, Professor of Strategy at Washington University.)

Wait a second, you might think, did they just suggest that Monsanto should split up because it requires three (industry-specific) analysts to cover them and these three guys cannot find a mutually convenient time to meet?! Yes, I am afraid they did. Analysts prefer firms who follow their own internal division of labour and if firms do not conform to this requirement, they will downgrade them or stop covering them altogether.Along similar lines, in a large research project, Ezra Zuckerman, professor at MIT, found that firms divested businesses, split up or demerged in order to make themselves easier to understand for analysts. Those firms who, for one reason or another, comprised an unusual combination of businesses in their corporation and therefore were “more difficult to understand” for equity analysts traded at a significantly lower price.

They could try to explain their strategy at length but after a while the only thing left for them to do was to split it. Arthur Stromberg, then CEO of URS Corporation, who initiated its spin-off, declared: “I realized that analysts are like the rest of us. Give them something easy to understand, and they will go with it. [Before the spin-off,] we had made it tough for them to figure us out”. Security analysts usually specialise in one or a specific combination of industries. If a firm does not conform to that division of analyst labour, they are more difficult to understand and analyse, which is why they will trade at a lower price. It then makes sense to give in to the analysts’ whims, and focus and simplify, even if that would make you weaker in a strictly business sense.


Hence, analysts rule the (diversification) waves. And their lunch break will determine your stock price. But is this influence really beneficial for companies and society as a whole? I guess one could speculate whether the unifying influence of external constituents on firm strategy in general is a healthy thing; after all, they help both the spread of good and bad management practices.

However, it seems evident and beyond debate that the barriers erected by equity analysts for firms to follow original, contrarian strategies – because it does not suit their lunch schedule and division of labour – is less than positive. That is because such contrarian strategies that cut across different businesses are often the most innovative ones, creating most value for companies, shareholders and society as a whole. Hence, figuring out a way to restrict this detrimental influence of equity analysts seems to anyone’s benefit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Business, February 16th 2011 "Bursting Seams" Edition

This week The Business is bursting, BURSTING I say, at it's imaginary seams with extra special guests from both "here" AND "there." Along with all the usual, adorable Businessmen (Bucky, Alex, Chris and Sean), check out who we got spitting hot comedy for you this week:

W. Kamau Bell is no stranger to The Business by any means (necessary). This visit to our humble show he is hot off performing two nights in Oakland with his come...dy compatriots that comprise Laughter Against The Machine, a powerhouse of intelligent and challenging socio-political comedy that is also FUNNY AS HELL.

Matt Ruby is a funny fellow from New York City. He performs hilarious stand-up comedy and writes about hilarious stand-up comedy on his blog Sandpaper Suit. He is also a show producer, a contributor to MTV, a maker of award-wining videos and a veteran of many stages and festivals.

Dan Goodman is a comedian and show producer also from New York, not a locally based LASIK surgeon as Google would have you believe. According to his bio, he rocks, and has been rocking since birth. And now he will rock our stage for us...and for you.

As yo
u know we charge a meager $5 at the door, start at a meager 8pm, and there is no BYOB anymore but you can get delicious food all throughout the neighborhood and eat it in a meager fashion whilst watching the show.

Friday, February 11, 2011

What's in a number ?

This blog has some pretense to be a serious one where matters of considerable intellectual weight are analysed and debated. Issues of significant import and with profound ramifications feature here. Adjectives such as inane, irrelevant, flippant, pea brained, etc etc ought not to be applicable. It is in this rich tradition that today's post examines one of the thorniest of problems to face humankind - why are bus routes numbered as they are in India !

For those uninitiated in the ways of public transport, especially in the south of India, here is a primer. Buses of all shapes and sizes abound. They carry numbers such as 342BE and J421K. Why are they so numbered is what I am trying to explore.

Take the road opposite my house, The route that most frequents this road is numbered 335E. There is an occasional 335 P or a 335 L or a 335 K . But, as far as I know, routes 1 to 334 do not exist anywhere in Bangalore. So why 335 ?Is it one of nature's unique constants like the pi ?? The next number after 335 appears to be 500. There is a 500C (no 500A or 500 B) . This is one puzzle I will leave for the Mensa enthusiasts to figure.

The city of Madras offers enormous potential for research in this subject. That bus route numbers can be transformed into a political statement was a fabulous discovery the citizens of this metropolis can claim credit for. You see, this city always had bus routes such as 21A, 21B, 21 C and so on. Mathematical geniuses in Chennai restricted themselves to two digits while their brethren in Bangalore preferred three. But then a certain gargantuan lady called Jayalalithaaaaa Jayaram (no relation of RamMmm) came to power. She looked around and saw that her favourite alphabet J did not feature in the lexicon of buses. She dropped a hint. The masses took it up immediately. There was a flurry of bus routes being numbered as 18J or 21J and the like. Some enthusiasts went one better 18JJ and 21JJ. Some more enterprising lot picked up J21J. It went on upto JJ21JJ - physical laws of space limitations then took over until the most enterprising of the lot came up with JJ21JJ with a cross right across it. There the matter stood until the massive lady lost power. Her rival who replaced her immediately decreed that the alphabet J's time in the sun was over. Bus No JJ21JJ cross vanished. Thankfully, his favourite alphabet K did not make an appearance. Perhaps because of the insinuation that K comes after J !

Why don't they simply number the bus routes 1,2,3 and so on. Oh no ! How can things be made so simple ? I am sure a whole department of bus numbering complete with 5321 labouring staff exists in the labyrinth of Indian bureaucracy. Staffed full of Ramamrithams, whom you might have met here. Slaving away with impenetrable logic which mere mortals cannot understand.

This writer discloses that he has some vested interest in the matter. He is regrettably a rather frequent commuter of a bus numbered BIAS6 !

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Business, February 9th 2011 "BIG UP!" Edition

BAP! BAP! BAP! Give it up! One Love for The Business this week as we welcome our two over-achieving guests Grant Lyon and Travis Irvine to the room so dark, they named it the Dark Room. SHABA!

Grant Lyon gives it up all over this great land of ours, performing comedy with a hustle most other comedians could learn a few things from. He is a veteran of multiple clubs and festivals and has been a featured writer on the Huffington ...Post. Perhaps his drive comes from his collegiate soccer past? More likely it's because he is a solid stand-up comedian, sketch performer, writer and improviser with the common sense to make sure everyone everywhere knows it.

Among other things, Travis Irvine has worked for Senator Charles Schumer, for entrepreneur and question mark enthusiast Matthew Lesko, been an instructor at The New York Film Academy in New York City, he ran for mayor of his hometown in Ohio in 2007, and last year ran for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District seat as a third party candidate. And now his bucket list is complete as he joins The Business to tell us all about it.

As always our show is a meager $5 and as always it begins at 8pm ON THE DOT (it's a broad dot). We are NO LONGER BYOB, but you can bring your own snacks...or someone else's if you are sneaky.

Monday, February 7, 2011

People always finish projects behind schedule and over budget - but here is some help

The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of delivering projects way behind schedule and way over budget. For example, the new Wembley stadium in London, which opened in 2007, was originally scheduled to open in 2003. It was also about $450 million over budget. Similarly, the Jubilee Line extension to the London Underground system cost $5.3 billion instead of the estimated $3.2 billion, and was almost two years late; likewise for the prestigious Millennium Bridge covering the Thames; Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington; the list goes on and on.
But at least it is not as bad as the (in)famous mother of all planning disasters: The Sydney Opera House. This was scheduled to open in 1963 at a cost of $7 million. Eventually, it opened in 1973 and cost $102 million. But I guess that’s simply because all Australians are really British descendants with a gene for criminality.

Anyway… of course there is nothing British about all this. The same happens in many countries, and to most individuals. We all tend to be rather unrealistic in our project planning and for instance consistently underestimate our completion times. Strangely enough, research shows that we only display this so-called “planning fallacy” for our own work. When it comes to estimating the completion time of someone else’s project, we are actually quite accurate. That is why we all snigger at our friends’ project plannings, declaring “they will never make that”, to subsequently make the exact same planning errors for our own work.

Aiding accuracy?

Professors Roger Buehler from Simon Fraser University and colleagues designed a series of experiments to see if he could help people to improve their planning ability. He enlisted a bunch of psychology students and asked them to estimate their completion time as accurately as possible for a particular thesis. At the end, he checked how many of them had been late. Perhaps not surprisingly (if you are also human) more than 70 percent were late. He then ran an experiment in which he asked people to make two plannings: one “if everything went as well as it possibly could” and one “if everything went as poorly as possibly could”, to see if that would make them a bit more realistic. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The majority of people still were way late, even in comparison to their most pessimistic forecast!


Roger then designed another study. He thought, “perhaps giving them a deadline will help?” He asked a large number of respondents to think of a project they were going to undertake in the near future – the projects ranged from all sorts of academic assignments to fixing one’s bicycle or clean their apartment. Then he checked whether there was a real deadline for their project (which was true for about half of them) and asked them for their estimate of their completion time. At the end, he checked how many of them had finished their project before their estimated time of completion. As before, about two thirds of people had been overly optimistic, and finished their project late, regardless of the nature of the project. And there was no difference between the groups with or without a deadline. Apparently, setting a deadline does not help a single bit; we do not become more accurate in our planning forecasts.

Recalling past experience

Then Roger thought of yet another experiment. He had noticed that when people explained the logic for their planning, they almost always only referred to what might happen in the future, during their project; they never seemed to think about relevant past experiences with similar projects, where surely they had experienced that they tended to be overly optimistic and usually finished late. So he thought, “perhaps that might help; asking them to think about similar past experiences before making their project planning?” And so he did. He ran a similar experiment but first asked people to remember their relevant past experiences. Didn’t help a single bit… His bemused respondents first told him at length about their past planning errors and then, during the subsequent minute, made the exact same planning errors all over again.

Then Roger took a deep breath, and designed one final experiment. Now he did not only ask participants to recall their past experiences before making their project planning but now he also asked them explicitly to actually incorporate these past experiences in their planning. And – beware and behold – that helped. When Roger explicitly forced people to connect their past experiences to their new planning, they finally came up with some quite realistic forecasts.
Hence, the planning fallacy is a pervasive and persistent phenomenon that is not easy to tackle. We are quite good at forecasting someone else’s project, but we are stubbornly overoptimistic about our own. The only way to make us see some sense is to be grabbed by the ear by someone like Roger, and be forced to explicitly take into account the past errors of our ways. Then there is no denying it anymore, not even to ourselves.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. All of America will come to a halt. Perfectly appropriate time to take a dig at America's favourite sport.

For those unacquainted with the sporting proclivities of that great nation, you just need to know that the sport in question is American Football. Don't need to know anything more to suffer through this post.

Why this sport is called "Football" beats me. The ball does not touch the foot at all, except once in a while when a team punts (kicks the ball as high and as far as it can) as it has run out of ideas of what else to do. And they call this "Football"" and the real football "Soccer" - proof that in the land of Glen Beck and Michael Moore, logic is not a prerequisite for anything.

Be that as it may, let us turn to the protagonists. You have to be a massive hulk to play this game. Muscles bulging and refusing to remain constrained in their allotted places. And what do they do to such monuments to testosterone ? They dress such hulks in the most effeminate of trousers - tight fitting sequins that threaten to burst from the ample posteriors they are meant to contain. Its a comical sight - huge hulks with enough padding on the top half of the body to resemble a battle tank and a bottom ... ; well; lets leave it at that.

To police such fine specimens of humanity, are a few old men termed as referees. They are dressed as jailbirds - striped shirts that would not be out of place in Tihar Jail. They control the man mountains by hurling handkerchiefs to the floor - at which sight the aforesaid man mountains quiver with fright or indignation !

The game itself will be completely unintelligible to any outsider. They strike elaborate poses , with their posteriors all ensconced in the tight sequins alluded to above, and sticking out. One guy hold the ball while another stands behind him and seems to caress his ample backside. They burst into action for precisely 5 seconds. Then it all comes to a halt for the next 4 minutes. Only to start again. In that 5 seconds of action, every hulk attempts to decimate the opposite number, somewhat in the fashion of rutting bulls. They try and bury the poor soul holding the ball in at least five layers of manhood (see picture above). In the interim the coaches of both the teams walk up and down on the side trailing a veritable electronics lab , wires snaked by half a dozen orderlies.

The sight of the 5 seconds of action sends commentators to a paroxysm of emotion. They yell and scream at the historical significance of what they have just seen. Given the American propensity to numbers - they measure to the exact inch how much the ball, and each Godzilla, has moved. They argue passionately whether it was 9 yards or 10, and when its the latter, they declare it in 1300 decibels to be "down" - if you listen carefully you may hear the prefix of first !

While they do all this, all of America is glued to the telly. At the same time consuming 5 burgers, 15 sausages, 1 kilo of chips, 3 kilos of pretzels, a few gallons of beer and soda and some 1 tonne more of "food" - these statistics being per person. Its officially the second largest gastronomic day in the Northern Hemisphere, second only to Thanksgiving when in addition to all of the above, turkey is added to the menu. Now you know why you see some grossly obese on the streets of any American city.

On the telly, a few stars and many wannabe stars are strutting their stuff. Paid for by silly companies who spend 1 million dollars for a 10 second as a monument to advertising inanity. The stars try their best to exploit the opportunity by indulging in "wardrobe malfunction".

For the record, today's Superbowl is between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. I am rooting for the Packers .........


Friday, February 4, 2011

Ni Hao, would you like to open an account ?

When Hu Jintao, the leader of China, visited Washington recently, there was a flurry of deals signed. Predictably, most were economic. One tiny deal, lost from the public glare may be far more important than most of the bigger ones signed amidst much fanfare. This was the acquisition by ICBC, the world's most valuable bank from China, of the tiny retail network of the Bank of East Asia in New York and California.

All bank takeovers in the US need regulatory approval. Given the circumstances under which this deal was signed, its expected that it would be approved. And therein lies the breakthrough.

The regulatory approval is given only if the US believes that the regulatory mechanism in the home country of the bank is "sound". This is classical American overreach of dictating to the world. Now if this deal is to be approved, that is a tacit endorsement of China's banking system, which is entirely state controlled and , to even the most neutral of observers, dodgy. America endorsing China's banking system ? Wow !

There is an even more interesting consequence at the China end. It is the placement of the regulatory powers of a China bank's operations, in the hands of the US regulatory authorities. Yes its only a tiny insignificant branch of the giant ICBC. But then America's regulators never stop at its nations shores. For the Communist Party to accept that, takes some doing.

You can see why both the countries chose a tiny insignificant deal to test the way forward. If it had been a large deal in the public glare, you can imagine the howls of protest in the US against letting China in. Equally so , behind closed doors of the Communist Party's politburo, of submitting to any form of regulation by outsiders. Best to wade through this in an insignificant deal. And then slowly inch your way forward.

America and China are learning to tango. Uncomfortably, but out of sheer necessity. Both would rather not do this. But there isn't a choice. So its an awkward dance , trying not to step on each others' toes. A tall order given that neither has learnt the steps and are too proud to practice. It will be nice watching the dance - we from India being the underaged kid, not allowed into the party, but sneaking in to watch the goings on.

The dance may be awkward, but getting customers to walk in to the branch in New York may be more awkward. Can't imagine Joe the Plumber resonate to the sounds of huan ying guang lin (welcome). But then they won't go after those sort. There are enough Chinese Americans in that land. The NBA all star voting has just finished. Guess who the starting centre for the West is ? Yao Ming. Never mind that he has been injured for a long time and won't play, probably for ever.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Business, February 2nd 2011: "Andy Haynes Groundhog Day" Edition

The Business kicks off the month of February by welcoming back comedian Andy Haynes! Andy has appeared on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," and at the Montreal Comedy Festival. He's also done two killer appearances on The Business in the past, and this week he returns to kill again. We've also got your usual Businessmen - Chris, Alex, Bucky, and Sean - and if Bucky sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of hilarity.

I'm not saying you'll have to relive this day over and over again until you wise up and attend this show, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Just ask Ned Ryerson. You know, Needle-Nose Ned? Ned the Head?

8 PM, five bucks, BYO-Taco.