Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

The Yin and Yang of Inflation

inflationpicInflation like all risk is a double edge sword. Its negative nature will upset the apple cart and pose uncomfortable challenges for SME managers that have grown accustomed to the status quo.

It will force managers to reconsider their well conceived business plans and perhaps more closely scrutinize this quarters P&L or the company balance sheet. It will present serious challenges for businesses supply chain and client relationships. It may raise the eyebrows of your shareholders and credit providers perhaps provoking some pointed questions concerning your management skills and the validity of your business model.

That said inflation does have an upside. Like all risk factors it has the potential to create opportunities. Inflation will drastically alter market conditions. It will reveal inefficiencies that nimble SME can actively engage and manage to turn those market conditions to their advantage. The key operative words are management, intentionality and active engagement.

Inflation is a silent killer. It stalks all SME threatening to gobble up product margins, revenue opportunities and bottom line profits. It diminishes customer buying power and may threaten the solvency of large customers and suppliers. It drives up the cost of capital, making credit more expensive while it forces state and local governments to raise taxes and fees.

The inflation bogey man lurks in the profit and loss statements of all businesses with SME being particularly vulnerable to its effect. Inflation dramatically shows itself on the expense side of the ledger in the increases for basic materials, energy, delivery services, T&E, administrative expenses and employee benefits. Inflation also affects the income side of the profit loss statement. It erodes the buying power of your customers and threatens collection of receivables by extending days outstanding, increased write offs or the sale of uncollected debt for pennies on the dollar.

SME profitability is particularly sensitive to the effects of inflation because of economies of scale, concentration of risk factors and lack of pricing power.

Many SME lack pricing power. Pricing power suggests that if price of a product rises to a certain level demand for that product will not diminish. For a SME to have pricing power it must offer value add product to dependent buyers. Its product or service cannot be easily replicated or widely available from other sources.

While pricing power escapes most SME numerous factors inhibit their ability to become low cost producers. They deliver product or service differentiation to their customers by other means then low price. Inflation erodes consumer purchasing power driving buyers to seek low cost producers. In this environment SME may suffer when buyers trade down to low cost providers. Key customers may compel SME to lower prices to be more in line with lower cost producers. This is a major threat to SME.

SME tend to have greater risk concentration in their business model. Heightened risk concentrations are most pronounced in small businesses due to a limited product line, geographical risk, market cyclicality and in client and supply chain relationships. Consider a small manufacturer of finished steel products for the home construction industry. Generally, manufactures profitability is highly correlated to the price it pays for basic commodities and has an extremely high concentration of supply chain and product risk. Small businesses may not be able to recover or adjust its product prices to cover increased commodity prices due to existing contractual agreements with customers or its lack of pricing power. The abatement of market demand due to a recession may provoke larger customers to demand price concessions by threatening to move their business to lower cost producers. The pressure on this small manufacturer is compounded by a spike of smaller account losses and moribund demand due to weak cyclical market conditions in its target market.

It’s almost a perfect storm of negative business conditions. Small businesses managers need to understand how inflation touches all aspects of their business and must manage its impact to maintain profitability and sustainable growth.

Managing Inflation Risk with a WIN Campaign

SME can meet the challenge of inflation head on by implementing a Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program that engages the numerous risks inflation poses. In deference to our former President Gerald Ford, business managers can initiate WIN Programs and actions to temper the impact of inflation and to seize opportunities that rapidly changing market conditions create. Small businesses must be extra vigilant and proactive in managing all classes of business risks.

Some small businesses will cave into the demands of their large accounts to cut prices to prevent them from going to a lower cost provider. This is very dangerous for small businesses and can result in “death by a thousand cuts.” Managers should not wait for their largest account to approach them seeking price concessions. Now is the perfect time to go on the offensive and alter the value proposition that only your firm can uniquely deliver to key accounts. Remember your largest accounts are experiencing the negative effects of inflation as well. Go to them and propose a WIN Campaign.

A company’s WIN Campaign can offer a joint marketing program using advanced web enabled technologies. Your WIN Campaign can implement an expanded training and support program tied to a business development program or supply chain rationalization. You may suggest a partnership to develop a new product or put in place a customer loyalty program. Your job is to create a unique value proposition that adds value to your product and convey it to your customer so they cannot commoditize your product. Together you and your clients can WIN the fight against inflation and turn it into a business development initiative. Your clients will appreciate the fact that you are thinking about their business success.

Another common knee jerk reaction to fight rising business costs is to reduce expenses by cutting expenditures on areas that do not support the mission critical functions of the business. Capital is allocated to maintain funding to support sales, production and product delivery. This is coupled with a lean administrative management structure and this model is seen as a recipe for economic survival. Being good stewards of corporate capital is essential during these times. Capital leakage is always a threat to business profitability and needs to be even more diligently managed during times of economic duress. But this strategy is a subsistence survival strategy. It is based on investing the barest minimum of capital to address fluctuating market conditions. This strategy may limit small businesses ability to literally capitalize on opportunities that changing market conditions present.

Cutting expenses for marketing is usually another budget casualty when businesses look to cut costs. This will reduce your current expense line for this quarter and will certainly help bottom line profitability; but skipping this year’s trade show will not help you to locate that new customer who is looking for a supplier because his current provider is struggling with product quality issues. Cutting this expense won’t provide you with the critical insights you need to stay competitive and ahead of new market entrants that are attending trade shows. Who by the way are also aggressively courting your largest account to get just a tiny slice of your business to demonstrate their “superior value proposition.”

Employee benefits and training is another area that is often the focus of budgetary cutbacks. Many SME need to closely consider the gains they will realize by cutting back on benefits offered to its employees. Cutting benefits could increase employee turnover. Training and hiring new employees are an expensive proposition for SME. The loss of key employees can potentially devastate a small business. Expertise, intellectual capital and critical business intelligence leaves the organization when a key employee walks out the door. This is doubly true if some key employees leave the firm and walk some major client relationships out the door with them.

SME can also try to employ risk transfer strategies. Insurance purchases may help in some areas but to fight inflation small businesses can use financial instruments (capital permitting) to hedge against rising prices. The purchase of TIPs, FX forward contracts, commodity or energy futures can help to offset the negative effects of key inflation business threats. As the price of oil rose this summer a modest equity position in oil or other energy company would have helped to offset the increase in energy expenses.

Thankfully adverse economic conditions will force SME to take an honest look at their product lines and business model. Economic adversity provides an opportunity for management to make hard decisions concerning product lines. This is an ideal time to focus and fund the development of products that offer the greatest potential for long term profitability and sustainable growth.

Inflation is a significant problem for small businesses but it is a problem that can be managed. Changing economic conditions alter the landscape for all businesses that accelerate and starkly reveal market inefficiencies. These inefficiencies create market anomalies and opportunities that astute small business owners and managers can capitalize on through an intentional practice of a risk management and opportunity discovery program.

Sum2’s objective is to assist clients to implement corporate sound practices that enhance profitability and sustainable growth. Sum2’s offers a wide stable of risk management apps for SME. The Macroeconomic Risk Assessment App helps managers review macroeconomic and event risks to better manage its potential effect on their business. Sum2 offers a Macroeconomic Risk App and can be downloaded from Google Play or by visiting http://www.sum2.com or by calling us at 973.287.7535.

risk: #sme, #inflation, #macroeconomic, #supplychain #office365, #mobileoffice, #metasme, #smeiot #eventrisk, #marketrisk, #WIN, #sum2

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July 21, 2014 Posted by | banking, customer risk, economics, inflation, SME | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Data for a Small World: SMEIoT

smeiotIoT

The world is a great big database and algorithmic wizards and mad data scientists are burning the midnight oil to mine the perplexing infinities of ubiquitous data points.  Their goal is to put data to use to facilitate better governance, initiate pinpoint marketing campaigns, pursue revelatory academic research and improve the quality of service public agencies deliver to protect and serve communities. The convergence of Big Data, Cloud Computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) make this possible.

The earth is the mother of all relational databases.  It’s six billion inhabitants track many billions of real time digital footprints across the face of the globe each and every day.  Some footprints are readily apparent and easy to see.  Facebook likes, credit card transactions, name and address lists, urgent Tweets and public records sparkle like alluvial diamonds; all easily plucked by data aggregators and sold to product marketers at astonishing profit margins.  Other data points are less apparent, hidden or derived in the incessant hum of the ever listening, ever recording global cybersphere.   These are the digital touch points we knowingly and unknowingly create with our interactions with the world wide web and the machines that live there.

It is estimated that there is over 20 billion smart machines that are fully integrated into our lives.  These machines stay busy creating digital footprints; adding quantitative context to the quality of the human condition.  EZ Passes, RFID tags, cell phone records, location tracking, energy meters, odometers, auto dashboard idiot lights, self diagnostic fault tolerant machines, industrial process controls, seismographic, air and water quality apparatuses and the streaming CBOT digital blips flash the milliseconds of a day in the life of John Q. Public.  Most sentient beings pay little notice, failing to consider that someone somewhere is planting the imprints of our daily lives in mammoth disk farms.  The webmasters, data engineers and information scientists are collecting, collating, aggregating, scoring and analyzing these rich gardens of data to harvest an accurate psychographic portrait of modernity.

The IoT is the term coined to describe the new digital landscape we inhabit.  The ubiquitous nature of the internet, the continued rationalization of the digital economy into the fabric of society and the absolute dependency of daily life upon it, require deep consideration how it impacts civil liberties, governance, cultural vibrancy and economic well being.

The IoT is the next step in the development of the digital economy. By 2025 it is estimated that IoT will drive $6 Trillion in global economic activity.  This anoints data and information as the loam of the modern global economy; no less significant than the arrival of discrete manufacturing at the dawn of industrial capitalism.

The time may come when a case may be made that user generated data is a commodity and should be considered a public domain natural resource; but today it is the province of digirati  shamans entrusted to interpret the Rosetta Stones, gleaning deep understanding of the current reality while deriving high probability predictive futures.  IoT is one of the prevailing drivers of global social development.


SME

There is another critical economic and socio-political driver of the global economy.  Small Mid-Sized Enterprises (SME) are the cornerstone of job creation in developed economies.  They form the bedrock of subsistence and economic activity in lesser developed countries (LDC).  They are the dynamic element of capitalism.  SME led by courageous risk takers are the spearhead of capital formation initiatives.  Politicians, bureaucrats and business pundits extol their entrepreneurial zeal and hope to channel their youthful energy in service to local and national political aspirations.  The establishment of SME is a critical macroeconomic indicator of a country’s economic health and the wellspring of social wealth creation.

The World Bank/ IFC estimates that over 130 million registered SME inhabit the global economy. The definition of an SME varies by country. Generally an SME and MSME (Micro Small Mid Sized Enterprises)  are defined by two measures, number of employees or annual sales.  Micro enterprises are defined as employing less than 9 employees, small up to 100 employees and medium sized enterprises anywhere from 200 to 500 employees.  Defining SMEs by sales scale in a similar fashion.

Every year millions of startup businesses replace the millions that have closed.  The world’s largest economy United States boasts over 30 million SME and every year over one million  small businesses close.  The EU and OECD countries report similar statistics of the preponderance of SME and numbers of business closures.

The SME is a dynamic non homogeneous business segment.  It is highly diverse in character, culture and business model heavily colored by local influence and custom. SME is overly sensitive to macroeconomic risk factors and market cyclicality.  Risk is magnified in the SME franchise due to high concentration of risk factors.  Over reliance on a limited set of key clients or suppliers, product obsolescence, competitive pressures, force majeure events, key employee risk, change management and credit channel dependencies are glaring risk factors magnified by business scale and market geographics.

In the United States, during the banking crisis the Federal Reserve was criticized for pursuing policies that favored large banking and capital market participants while largely ignoring SME. To mitigate contagion risk, The Federal Reserve  quickly acted to pump liquidity into the banking sector to buttress the capital structure of SIFI (Systemically Important Financial Institutions). It was thought that a collateral benefit would be the stimulation of SME lending.  This never occurred as SBA backed loans nosedived. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner implemented the TARP and TALF programs to further strengthen the capital base of distressed banks as former Fed Chairman  Ben Bernanke pursued Quantitative Easing to transfer troubled mortgage backed securities onto Uncle Sams balance sheet to relieve financial institutions  of these troubled assets. Some may argue that President Obama’s The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)  helped the SME sector.  The $800 billion stimulus was one third tax cuts, one third cash infusion to local governments and one third capital expenditures aimed at shovel ready infrastructure improvement projects.  The scale of the ARRA was miniscule as compared to support rendered to banks and did little to halt the deteriorating macroeconomic conditions of the collapsing housing market, ballooning unemployment and rising energy prices severely stressing SME.

The EU offered no better.  As the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) economies collapsed the European Central Bank forced draconian austerity measures on national government expenditures undermining key SME market sensitivities.  On both sides of the Atlantic, the perception of a bifurcated central banking policy that favored TBTF Wall Street over the needs of  an atomized SME segment flourished.  The wedge between the speculative economy of Wall Street and the real economy on Main Street remains a festering wound.

In contrast to the approach of western central bankers, Asian Tigers, particularly Singapore have created a highly  supportive environment for the incubation and development of SME. Banks offer comprehensive portfolios of financial products and SME advisory services. Government legislative programs highlight incubation initiatives linked to specific industry sectors. Developed economies have much to learn from these SME friendly market leaders.

The pressing issues concerning net neutrality, ecommerce tax policies, climate change and the recognition of Bitcoin as a valid commercial specie are critical developments that goes to the heart of a healthy global SME community.  These emerging market events are benevolent business drivers for SME and concern grows that legislative initiatives are being drafted to codify advantages for politically connected larger enterprises.

Many view this as a manifestation of a broken political system, rife with protections of large well financed politically connected institutions. Undermining these entrenched corporate interests is the ascending digital paradigm promising to dramatically alter business as usual politics. Witness the role of social media in the Arab Spring, Barack Obama’s 2008 election or the decapitalization of the print media industry as clear signals of the the passing away of the old order of things.  Social networking technologies and the democratization of information breaks down the ossified monopolies of knowledge access. These archaic ramparts are being gleefully overthrown by open collaborative initiatives levelling the playing field for all market participants.

SMEIoT

This is where SMEIoT neatly converges.  To effectively serve an efficient market, transparency and a contextual understanding of its innate dynamics are critical preconditions to market participation.  The incubation of SME and the underwriting of capital formation initiatives from a myriad of providers will occur as information standards provide a level of transparency that optimally aligns risk and investment capital. SMEIoT will provide the insights to the sector for SME to grow and prosper while industry service providers engage SME within the context of a cooperative economic non-exploitative relationship.

This series will examine SME and how IoT will serve to transform and incubate the sector.  We’ll examine the typology of the SME ecosystem, its risk characteristics and features.  We’ll propose a metadata framework to model SME descriptors, attributes, risk factors and a scoring methodology.  We’ll propose an SME portal, review the mission of Big Data and its indispensable role to create cooperative economic frameworks within the SME ecosystem. Lastly we’ll review groundbreaking work social scientists, legal scholars and digital frontier activists are proposing to address best governance practices and ethical considerations of Big Data collection, the protection of privacy rights,  informed consent, proprietary content and standards of accountability.

SMEIoT coalesces at the intersection of social science, commerce and technology.  History has aligned SMEIot building blocks to create the conditions for this exciting convergence.  Wide participation of government agencies, academicians, business leaders, scientists and ethicists will be required to make pursuit of  this science serve the greatest good.

 

This is the first in a series of articles on Big Data and SMEIoT . It originally appeared in Daftblogger eJournal. Next piece in series is scheduled to appear on Daftblogger eJournal within the next two weeks.

#smeiot #metasme #sum2llc #sme #office365 #mobileoffice #TARP #capitalformation #IoT #internetofthings #OECD #TBTF #Bitcoin #psychographics #smeportals #bigdata #informedconsent

July 9, 2014 Posted by | banking, Bernanke, commerce, commercial, credit crisis, economics, ethics, Internet of Things, IoT, politics, risk management, SME, SMEIOT, Sum2, sustainability, TALF, TARP, Treasury | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Davos Dithers While Cairo Burns

Per-Gynt-in-the-Hall-of-the-Mountain-King-Dovregubbens-Hall-1913_WEBB

In the pristine air of the Swiss Alps,  the worlds power elites gather at an annual World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.   In this rarefied Hall of the Mountain King’s, Prime Ministers, CEOs and the esteemed emissaries of the global elite get some valuable face-time with each other to assess the world situation and figure out ways to arrange it more to their likeness.   Russian Prime Minister Medvedev  was scheduled to give the welcoming address but had to cancel because a Chechen suicide bomber blew himself up in Moscow’s busiest airport taking a couple dozen travelers with him.

Busy looking inward to protect personal interests,  the fiduciaries of global solvency stew about regulatory overreach and the added burden it creates as the ruling elites balance the demands of worldly subsistence with the perplexities of generating sufficient cash flows to cover dividend payments to shareholders.  More often than not the heft of shareholder concerns outweighs the growing immiseration of the world’s troubled masses.  The deeply held sacred dogma that enlarged prosperity for the wealthy benefits the disenfranchised is being increasingly challenged as the wealth gap rises against a backdrop of growing economic duress and political instability.

The growing movement to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak illustrates the failure of a global trickle down political economy.  Mubarak has held office since Anwar Sadat’s unceremonious removal from office  is receiving urgent signals from the Egyptians that he has clearly overstayed his welcome.  For three decades, Mr. Mubarak and his military caliphate have been the recipients of generous western aid packages designed to maintain a tenuous peace with Israel.  Stitched together at Camp David in the closing days of the Carter Administration; the sibling rivalry between Abraham’s jealous children remains incendiary and its stability will be tenuous at best considering the growing role of  The Muslim Brotherhood in challenging Mubarak’s continued rule.

The United States sends Egypt $1.5 billion in military aid each year.  Its seem a small price to pay to guarantee the peace with Zion and to  underwrite a strategic ally in the volatile Arab world.  It’s also a perfect political foil to counterbalance Israel’s favored nation status.   But US aid and IMF loans have financed Mubarak’s autocracy creating deep political fissures within Egypt.  These aid programs have widened the wealth gap by limiting opportunity to a select few; abetted political disenfranchisement that encouraged social unrest,  fueling Islamic radicalism and the urgent need for democratic reforms.

The game plan followed in Egypt for the past three decades is not working.  The nature of western aid to Egypt and how it was used to benefit the military ruling elites illustrate the conundrum of the Davos Hajiis.   Aligning economic development and political empowerment of the world’s disenfranchised with the needs of the global capitalist elites has failed to deliver on its promise.  The pursuit of Mule and  Sparrow economics have engorged the elites and left the many sparrows emaciated.

When the Davos delegates leave their ski chateaus for an afternoon on the slopes, as they exit the lifts at the top of the world, it may yet still be possible to glimpse the growing crowds amassing in Tahrir Square.  It may still be possible to connect the dots of promoting the inclusive economics of reciprocity and social democracy.  The revolutionaries gathering in Liberation Square  are joining with the dispossessed to give full voice for an agenda of change.

The elites have stored up too much wealth for themselves.  The masses have remained wanting, impoverished of goods and denied liberty, fed a steady diet of repression they stoke fires in Tahrir Square signaling the time for change has arrived.

Music selection: Edvard Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain Kings

Risk: Middle East, political stability, economic prosperity, global economy, democracy, Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, Davos, IMF, Israel, Tahrir Square, revolution, military rule, Jimmy Carter, Mule and Sparrow Economics, Camp David Accords, Medvedev, Anwar Sadat, World Economic Forum

 

 

 

January 30, 2011 Posted by | banking, corporate social responsibility, credit crisis, democracy, Egypt, history, Israel, Middle East, military, Muslim, politics, revolution, social unrest, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Credit Starved SMEs

Greenwich Associates highly regarded Market Pulse Study on SME credit availability reports that two-thirds of small businesses and 55% of middle market companies indicate that banks are failing to meet the needs of creditworthy companies. Half of the 221 small businesses participating in the latest Greenwich Market Pulse Study say it is harder to secure credit today than it was at this time last year including roughly 33% of businesses that say it is much harder to obtain loans today.

The Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF) a $30 billion program established by the Treasury Department to encourage Community Banks to step up lending to SMEs is still trying to get some traction in the marketplace. The SBLF injects capital into community banks that demonstrate an active SME lending program will take another quarter to determine its effectiveness.

Community Banks are still transitioning its small business lending focus from an over dependency on real estate development. SMEs seeking loans for capital improvements, fund operations or business expansion must provide lenders some added assurances about the financial health of the business.

SMEs can take steps to improve their credit standing and get approvals from lenders for loans and expansion for credit. SMEs must demonstrate they have an excellent understanding of the condition of their firm’s financial health, what they must do to improve profitability and how they will use the credit extended by lenders to produce an acceptable return.

Credit Redi helps SME’s demonstrate the condition of the firms financial health, the risks and opportunities that SMEs must address to improve the firms financial health and identify the initiatives that need to be funded to achieve desired profitability and growth. These are the keys bankers look for on applications for loans. Being able to demonstrate credit worthiness with an industry standard rating methodology determines weather a lender will grant you a loan, what rates you will pay and how much lending institutions will lend.

Since 2002, Sum2 has been helping SME’s manage risk and seize opportunities to grow and prosper under the most competitive market conditions. Credit Redit is the latest addition to Sum2’s series of SME risk management products.

To determine the condition of your company’s financial health click here:

Risk: credit, SME, capital allocation, credit rating

January 13, 2011 Posted by | banking, credit, Credit Redi, lending, SME, Sum2 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Credit Redi Helps Spot Small Business Credit Risk

The recession and credit crunch have shifted financial risk from banks to small and midsized businesses (SME) that often must extend credit to customers to make a sale. When companies extend credit, in effect making unsecured loans, they’re acting like banks but without the credit management tools and experience of a banker.

Credit Redi is designed for small businesses to quickly spot customer credit risk. Small businesses typically don’t have access to information that provides transparency about customer credit worthiness. Credit Redi is a credit risk management tool for small and mid-sized businesses. It only takes one or two bad receivables to damage an SME’s financial health. Market conditions quickly change and its critical to have some type of business insight into the businesses SME’s work with.

Credit Redi is also an excellent tool to determine the financial health of critical suppliers. A key supplier going out of business could have disastrous consequences for SMEs. Credit Redi monitors the financial health of existing suppliers and help managers make wiser choices in supply chain and business partner decisions.

Get Credit Redi here:

Risk: SME, credit risk, supply chain, partnerships, customers, receivables

January 10, 2011 Posted by | banking, commerce, credit, credit crisis, Credit Redi, customer risk, risk management, SME, Sum2, supply chain | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Forth Estate Crosses Over

There is this program that runs on the WE Cable Network.  It’s called Crossing Over with Jonathan Edwards.   Jonathan Edwards is a psychic medium.  He stands in front of a live gathering of 75 people and tunes into psychic vibes emanating through the audience.  The vibes are messages from deceased loved ones who have crossed over the Acheron.  The dead are keen to communicate warnings, good wishes and assurances to assist living  loved ones on how to navigate the tricky vicissitudes of life.   During the show, Jonathan walks about the room picking up on celestial chatter and begins to relay and interpret a soliloquy of the dead like a macabre game of supernatural telephone. Jonathan Edwards asks his audience to suspend all disbelief as he bestrides the nexus of the metaphysical spirit world and the pedestrian reality that most earthlings inhabit.

The most common messages the dead channel through Jonathan seek to absolve the anxiety and guilt of the tormented living.  Crossing Over is popular because it offers its audience an  absolution, confirms personal cosmology and rationalizes the pursuit of desires by affirming the consequences of decisions as a self fulfilling prophecy.  It safely places its audience in a self validating cosmic echo chamber.  Its an ongoing morality tale with only happy endings and unfortunately only a tenuous connection to authenticity and objective truth.

The state of the news media industry is very much like Crossing Over.  The Forth Estate once thought of as an objective arbiter, information dispersant and truth seeking medium it is now chosen and consumed as a branded version of reality.

The devastating earthquake that buried Haitians in heaps of rubble unleashed global battalions of news teams to cover the event.  Many of the news crews from large established networks beat first responders to the scene.  In some cases the arrival of news teams actually held up the arrival of rescue teams and supplies because the airfield and crowed airspace could not accommodate all the traffic.  The news teams were forced to hole up at the airport because blocked roads prohibited them from going anywhere.  I recall Robin Roberts and the GMA News team dodging fork lifts and supply trucks left with nothing more to do then to urgently interview themselves.  Correspondents were reduced to ghoulishly opining about the tragedy while eagerly mugging for the cameras with contorted faces to portray the human tragedy unfolding beyond the range of their cameras.

GMA’s presence added nothing and in fact inhibited rescue efforts.  I thought of all the drinkable water these crews consumed could have been used to quench the thirst of Haitians dying from dehydration. Thankfully the GMA News team soon left after spending a self indulgent weekend at the airport. Their moral outrage registered and attempt at ratings grab accomplished.  Their contribution to shedding light on the scope of this tragedy and placing it in a larger context of its meaning to the global community of nations was lost in deference to the tragedy’s emotional impact on GMA reporters.  For GMA the subjective condition of the emotional distress of their media stars had become the story.   Their viewers must have figured that if GMA’s News celebrities were hurting this story must be big.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta was an example of how a newsman became part of the story in a positive way.  I recall with great admiration watching a camera crew following Dr. Gupta as he walked amidst the rubble of Port-Au-Prince.  He learned of the location of a hospital and went to investigate how it was delivering services to the injured.  Upon his arrival Dr. Gupta discovered the make shift hospital was little more then injured people being placed in the hallway of a building.  The dead were being stacked outside by a wall surrounding the compound.  The hospital had no doctors, nurses, beds or supplies.  The facility lacked water to clean wounds or salve thirst.  What the hospital did have was a constant stream of wounded arriving in greater numbers desperate for any type of care.  The scale of the quake, the massive amounts of injured victims and the overwhelmed capacity of  the hospitals ability to respond was reported in stark clarity.

Dr. Gupta was overwhelmed by parents cradling their broken children.  Dr. Gupta a licensed medical doctor took off his correspondent hat and put on his stethoscope.  He honored his Hippocratic Oath and started treating babies and the wounded with whatever he could cobble together.  Dr. Gupta was no longer a journalist but was now a doctor.  He asked that the cameras stop rolling so he could perform his duties as a doctor.  I’ll never forget the look on Dr. Gupta’s face.  It spoke volumes about the desperate conditions he was confronting and the firm resolve that he would perform his duties as a trained physician under trying almost impossible circumstances.

We could understand Dr. Gupta’s crossover from journalist to doctor.  It was proper and correct response as a human being but as a journalist all objectivity had been lost and in many respects Dr. Gupta had become the story in a constellation of a million stories emanating from the epicenter of one of the great human tragedies of the past century.  This is a departure from the norm of real time documentary reportage.  I can’t tell you how many documentaries I came away from cursing the producers and cameramen for doing nothing to prevent the baby wildebeest from being  consumed by the lion pack or for failing to offer a family of refugees in Darfur a bottle of water or a ride on their jeep to escape the marauding  Janjaweed.

News Corps, network media division Fox News belies the myth of the monolithic liberal mainstream media and its claim of balance in its marketing handle.   Fox News may offer a fair presentment of the news to its conservative viewership but its claim of balance that suggests the inclusion of a liberal perspective in their news product is specious.

Fox News really came of age following 9/11 and the growing conservative drift of the nation. Its useless to posit weather Fox News created the conservative drift or developed programming to market to this political demographic; but the political inclinations of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch have always been decidedly conservative.  At its founding in 1996, Fox News started differentiating itself from the liberal mainstream media by supporting the Republican impeachment drive of President Clinton, effectively  setting the stage for its partisan approach to reporting the news.  In many respects its unabashed partisanship was a game changer in how news and information was being packaged, positioned and delivered in the emerging narrow casting market paradigm.   Its sentiment not very different from the golden days of yellow journalism practiced by William Randolph Hearst.

Liberals and progressives have criticized News Corp for its lack of objectivity and  balance.  Many believe it to be the official party organ of the Republican Party and its compromised coverage is more akin to propaganda then news.  I believe this to be true as well.  Fox News has countered that it provides both news and opinion.  Fox News employs many of the leading conservative voices.  Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee are senior GOP members on the payroll of Fox News.  They regularly appear on shows hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity who are conservative celebrities in their own right.  The trick is discerning what is news and what constitutes opinion and editorial content.  The line that demarcates them is increasingly a fine one.  Even the innocuous news blurbs scrolling along the bottom of the TV screen seep in partisanship.  Some may report objective facts like the closing level of the Dow or the latest sports score. These little factoids appear alongside pieces that consistently reinforce the conservative credo of the network.  Its also a practice for commentators like Karl Rove to opine on stories covered on news segments.  The pundits impassioned analysis of the story leaves the listener little room to doubt the interpretation as a validation of the viewers conservative  political sentiments and ideological disposition.  The ability to distinguish fact from opinion becomes increasingly lost in these clouds of obfuscation.

As the model of creating, packaging and marketing partisan news the advent of Glenn Beck as a political entertainer is symptomatic of the maturation of the industry.  Glenn Beck’s show is more of a political reeducation camp that tries to provide low information voters and political neophytes with a more robust framework to understand the history and philosophy of conservatism.  Beck extends the Fox News portfolio of infotainment products.

Beck’s role in encouraging the formation of the Tea Party expands the footprint of News Corp.  Some may consider this crosses the line into political activism but I believe it to be a highly developed form of call and response direct marketing.  Beck’s incessant rants about the imminent collapse of  American democracy, the downfall of free market capitalism and the advocacy of the purchase of gold to hedge against these terrible prospects has attracted  the sponsorship of gold marketers and other fear merchants living large and minting major coin in the time of terror.

Fox is not alone in this sin.  CNBC profited from the pre-crash market run-up and had a vested interest in fueling market speculation and excess.  The business channel owned and operated by NBC  took some heat on this issue in the wake of the market meltdown.  During the market run-ups and the creation of the numerous market bubbles CNBC was taken to task for its roll as a biased shill in creating a risk averse mania that fed into the speculative orgy.  The encouragement of reckless behavior would cost investors and Main Street citizens a good portion of their retirement savings.  Jon Stewart took on CNBC celebrity Jim Cramer for his role in stoking unhealthy speculation. The claim of caveat emptor is not a sufficient disclaimer to absolve CNBC of this perceived wrong doing.  Information and data is the fuel that powers the capital market engine and viewers perceived CNBC to be a critical channel for this type of decision support data and analysis.  As animated red bulls flashed across the TV screen screaming “buy buy buy” the speculative urge feeding the demon greed of Cramer’s viewers jumped at the prospect to secure easy profits and pushed the execute button to route a flood of orders to E-Trade.

Media outlets were not alone in profiting from the conflict of interest in their business model.  The rating agencies Moody’s, Standard and Poors and other issuers of financial health assessments were roundly criticized for a business model that accepted fees from companies  to determine their investment ratings investors use to judge safety and soundness of the companies securities.  Investment banking institutions like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley ran into trouble for trading securities that they advised their clients to hold in investment portfolios.  Large commercial banks have also been called on the carpet for the inherent conflict of interest in their mortgage lending business that integrated mortgage underwriters, originators, servicers, securitizers and investors under a single roof.

Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission has given corporations a megaphone to direct enormous amounts of capital and influence on Americas political culture.  The exponential growth of the political industrial complex places media companies on the cusp of an emerging market.  News Corp occupies a well defined franchise in the vortex of this growth industry.  News Corp will be the predominant media channel attracting politically sponsored advertising from 527 corporations to advocate issues central to the conservative agenda.  The market for political theater is strong and growing and News Corp has one of the hottest theatrical properties in celebrities like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

If Fox News bends and packages information with selected editing in support of political narrative; Andrew “NAACP” Breitbart and James “ACORN” O’Keefe edits news to create a false narrative to affirm ideology.  The omnipresent  multi-channel digital world and the need for consistent real time affirmation justifies entrapment and libel as fair game in the political narrative. The specious political ethics of radical entitlement, means justify ends, medium is the message and relativistic ethics is the next step of  an ideologically mature ,technologically enabled infotainment industry.  The self affirming echo chamber that verifies fact and swears to any truth is blessed with selective amnesia and a self correcting mechanism of  a highly refined subjective fact checker informed by extreme prejudice.

Jon Stewart  use of satire and exaggeration to make a lager point of clarified and reified truth is old school stuff.  In the Age of the Avatar,  the real, the imagined, the intended and the manifested get confused in the digital clouds of form, delivery and content. The medium is the message, the network is the computer and Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity was a marketing event to stake a claim on the market of moderation.  No doubt a highly educated discerning market segment with lots of disposable income.  Its only downside its getting a little long in the tooth.

The Forth Estate is rapidly evolving due the dramatic changes in technology, market structure, business model and consumer consciousness.  The role of the free press and the constitutional protections it enjoys in a democratic society is under siege and on the verge of bankruptcy.  The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and LA Times are old media institutions struggling to stay financially solvent and culturally pertinent.  Time will tell of their ability to evolve and create a sustainable business model  that will be validated by a market economy.  We have learned that truth, disclosure and transparency are not priceless assets but virtues that must support a sufficient  p/e ratio to to survive in a capitalist economy.

The past few weeks we’ve had a few First Amendment martyrs.  Rick Sanchez, Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann learned that the sword was more powerful then the pen.  The more important lesson that managers could remove them on the whim of executive fiat if they failed to demonstrate restraint of pen and tongue.  In actuality the  removal of these gentlemen from the news desk was more of a business decision then a violation of  their right of Free Speech.

As we enter the second decade of our two wars on terrorism even the embedded journalists rolling through the distressed hamlets of Iraq and Afghanistan are getting a bit war weary.  Like a captive hostage the embeds could not help but to identify with their chauffeurs.  The brave soldiers driving the Humvees’ were always in control of what the embeds saw, was responsible for their safety and quickly became the reporters best friend born of dependency, admiration and the comradeship that develops during war.  Objective reportage was the first causality in this  type of arrangement.

We need to take a cue from Jonathan Edwards.  He is the real shaman of our time.  Blessed with unique skills to help his audience to realize that self affirming connection is only possible by crossing over and taking suggestions from the well placed authorities residing in an unseen mysterious supernatural world.

You Tube Music Video: Tom Waits, Lie to Me

Risk: First Amendment, free speech

November 12, 2010 Posted by | 9/11, banking, branding, business, Clinton, commercial, commodities, culture, democracy, democrats, economics, elections, government, history, investments, marketing, media, news, philosophy, politics, product, regulatory, sustainability, Tea Party, war | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Healing the Breach: An Essay on Sound Practices for Fund Managers

…“the “money-management business” (with its plethora of mutual funds, investment counseling firms, and hedge funds) has so many practitioners who’ve grown up in an era where it’s all been about marketing and not risk management,…” “If 2004 goes bad, it will go really bad “ Bill Fleckenstein Contrarian Chronicle

This candid remark is an astonishing observation. The assertion that money management is more about marketing then risk management is a bit disconcerting. The most recent Security Exchange Commission’s (SEC) announcement concerning its investigations of brokerage firms for receiving commission payment premium’s by asset management firms for directing investors into purchases of preferred mutual funds is the latest example of how this statement is a tragic reality for investment product consumers.

We live in the era of radical capitalism. It is characterized by fierce political pronouncements of the sanctity of laissez-faire principles and the ultra aggressive pursuit of free markets, resulting in the increased rationalization of the market mechanism into our culture and daily lives. For many readers this statement is not surprising or profound. Marketing is king, and if you have any doubts about it, try locating a music station in New York City that is not wed to a Top 40 play list or Talk Radio format.

However, as this Milton Friedman vision of utopia continues its inexorable march of rationalization, a strange alchemy is taking place. As businesses damn the torpedoes to pursue markets, ethical business practices and sound corporate governance principles are being sacrificed at the alter of EBITDA, ROE, P/E’s and the Holy of Holies those sacred stock options. The ironic twist to all this is that these aggressive business practices defended on the grounds that they enhance shareholders value are actually seriously eroding the values of brands, profit margins and market capitalizations. Ask a shareholder of Enron, Parmalat or WorldCom about the clever corporate stewardship of these company’s former management teams and you’ll get a resounding thumbs down.

But there is something deeper going on here. When investors entrust their money to an investment manager, they may be attracted to the sizzle (remember past performance is not indicative of anything) but what they want is still the steak. Investors want an investment manager that can understand their investment goals and risk tolerance and provide them with an investment vehicle that can balance that risk tolerance with the capability of realizing an expected return. The act of giving a manager discretionary power over an individuals retirement fund, a union’s pension portfolio, a family office or child’s educational financing vehicle is a tremendous act of faith that requires an extraordinary degree of confidence in the manager’s ability to provide an acceptable return, but to also be a trusted fiduciary that has the requisite operational support and controls in place that will safeguard and honestly seek to grow and protect an investors capital.

Mr. Fleckenstein’s assertion that risk management has taken a back seat to marketing and product placement is unfortunately an accurate assertion. The financial services industry is unique in the sense that it is the loam of all capitalist constructs. Yet as a business, financial services companies are no different from any other economic enterprise. All companies create products and differentiate themselves through the value proposition incorporated into their product. Intrinsic to the product creation process is a determination of the type of materials that will form its composition. A conscious decision is made as to how the product will be positioned and marketed, its performance metrics determined, customer service resources required to support the product as consumers use it and how it will be distributed. Once those variables have been determined, a profit margin is added and a value proposition to potential customers is conveyed. The value proposition that is communicated to consumers comes to be known and identified as the product brand. An investment product is designed to essentially address current and future financing requirements and the risk profile of the consumer are central to the design and purpose of the product. That is why this bifurcation is so dangerous. It undermines the inherent purpose of the investment product and should more truthfully be marketed as a product that enriches the commission merchant that may over a specified period of time garner a return for the investor. Think about all the Enron employees who had their 401k’s invested entirely in Enron stock.

This is probably the most significant point and primal differentiator of companies that manufacture financial products with that of companies that manufacture consumer durables. Financial products facilitate the flow of capital through the markets. It feeds the invisible hand that guides and directs all economic activity. If the flow of financial products is impeded, or abates due to consumers lack of confidence, a consumer driven economy like that of the United States will suffer greatly. Foreign governments and institutions buy US Government bills, bonds and notes because of the well-earned confidence they have in Uncle Sam’s stable currency and it’s ability to pay it’s debt and provide a fair return to all note holders. However if that confidence goes away, Uncle Sam will have to curtail its deficit spending, raise taxes on its people and enter into other messy measures to remain economically viable. Confidence is a lovely thing both for nations and companies and once that confidence is lost it is a difficult, if not an impossible thing to regain. Confidence is the basis of risk management. Credit risk and rates of return, the key variables of risk management, all start with the certainty of confidence.

Yes, from an investment performance point of view 2003 was a terrific year. All major equity indices were up. Thanks in large part to a federal tax rebate program the US economy grew by 8% during the 3rd quarter, prompting Mr. Greenspan to proclaim with a certain degree of confidence that the recession had ended. Yet from corporate governance, business confidence point of view, 2003 business news makes the turn of the century robber barons look like acolytes of Mother Teresa. To restore confidence investment managers need to develop a Sound Practice program that will repair the breech and bridge the bifurcation of marketing and risk management within the investment management enterprise. Lets turn our focus on how and why this bifurcation must be bridged.

Sound Practices Builds Confidence

The explosive growth of the global hedge fund industry and the important role it plays in providing market liquidity and as an alternative asset class for high net worth investors and institutions is increasingly placing the industry in the global spotlight and many regulators, interest groups and institutional consumers are demanding greater transparency and advocating increased oversight and government regulation.

The Long Term Capital Management debacle, George Soros’s unilateral assault on and profitable dismantling of the Pre-Euro Exchange Rate Mechanism, numerous hedge fund blow-ups through poor management controls or outright fraud, and the most recent disclosure of the widespread collusion of hedge fund arbitrageurs and mutual fund managers to conduct market timing trading, is seriously eroding investor confidence in financial institutions. This is creating a political climate favorable to enhanced regulation and oversight of financial institutions. The recent investigative actions of New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, and the appointment of William H. Donaldson to head the SEC are clearly political responses to the crisis in corporate governance and regulatory malfeasance.

At last count, there are approximately 20,000 companies engaged in investment management within the United States. Some investment companies are regulated by the SEC, some by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), some by the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), some conform to best practices required by custodial counter-parties, and some are guided solely by the good conscience of the fund manager.

In this rapidly expanding market, managers are seeking to differentiate themselves and attract investors assets through slick marketing campaigns, presentations, road shows, and shameless boasts about a mangers progeny, experience and past performance. Attestations of operational readiness and management’s commitment to ethical corporate governance is usually covered with a statement that lists the prime broker, the accounting firm for auditing and the administrator for transfer agency and shareholder communications. The manager believes that by listing the service providers (corporate brands) they convey a message to the investor that they are operationally sound and have the operational controls in place to satisfy all contingencies. Unfortunately, these service providers are retained for a very specific purpose and taken in aggregate do not amount to the implementation of a unified sound risk management program. Indeed, Arthur Anderson was a leading provider of services to the alternative investment management market and reliance on this brand to infer regulatory compliance or adherence to sound operational practices was clearly a miscalculation.

In the day-to-day operation of the business the tension between regulatory compliance and entrepreneurial zeal is usually resolved in favor of doing the transaction. When we asked an executing broker working a large sale transaction for a first time hedge fund customer if the hedge fund identity had been properly documented and verified in conformance with the rules of the USA PATRIOT Act he stated, “They’ll never answer these questions and if we ask they’ll simply go to another broker to work the order. We’ll take the hit to do the deal.” Yes this broker made a calculated decision based on the potential that the hedge fund was not entering into this transaction to launder money through the capital market system or was a front for terrorist financing. He was probably right, and earned his firm a nice commission for working the 100,000-share block at $.05 per share. But what if he was wrong? Was the premium commission rate a fair return for a ruined reputation, a million dollar fine, the revocation of your industry license, a lifelong ban from the industry, or even a prison sentence?

What are Sound Practices?

Sound Practices are a set of standards and operational controls that mitigate numerous risk factors in the investment management enterprise. Sound Practices address the investment process, its decision and operational support functions, capital introduction, compliance requirements, business continuity, fund strategies and investor communications within a set of defined expense ratios.

What’s the difference between Sound Practices and Regulatory Compliance?

If we accept the definition that compliance is a set of externally imposed rules required to insure that counter-parties of a transaction and the rules governing the transaction meet acceptable minimum standards to facilitate an ethical and efficient exchange of value; I think we come pretty close to the meaning and nature of compliance and the purpose of the functions required to support it.

In the United States, depending upon the type of products a financial services firm offers, there may be or may not be a governmental agency or Special Regulatory Organization (SRO) that is charged with compliance oversight and enforcement of its business practices. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is charged with the responsibility to oversee compliance with regulatory statutes for savings and loans, thrifts and banks. For broker/dealers the NASD is the SRO oversight body. For mutual fund companies and publicly listed companies, the SEC is the regulator. Future Commission Merchants are regulated by the CFTC; and hedge funds, -sometimes referred to as an Unregistered Investment Company (UIC)- at present escape any formalized regulatory oversight body.

Each regulatory body has its own set of compliance rules, guidelines and enforcement mandates. One can imagine the overlap and confusion that occurs when a bank owns a broker dealer, which owns an asset management firm, that offers mutual funds and off shore hedge fund products to institutional, retail and high net worth investors. The maze of regulators and the differing and sometimes contradictory regulatory requirements creates a reactionary and possibly antagonistic response to regulatory examinations and demands. At the very least, compliance is a significant cost of doing business and adds little to the intrinsic value of the product offered by the institution. The added expense of compliance deals with the structural aspects of the market, not the intrinsic value of the product. This is a dangerous bifurcation in its own right. A financial product, (specie for the capital markets) requires a denigration of value to assure a controlled velocity through a regulated market structure.

For companies that view regulatory compliance as a necessary evil that tempers entrepreneurial pursuits and whose function is an added cost of doing business; these organizations will develop a best practice culture that is inherently restrictive. This type of corporate response to regulatory or best practices initiatives will always be overwhelmingly reactive and places the enterprise at great operational and regulatory risk.

Sound Practices are different. Sound practices are a set of internally (organically) developed operating principles that inform the values of ethical corporate governance, is enforced by internal management and seeks to become invisible as it ingrains itself into the operational and business culture of the firm. Sound practices must be viewed as fundamental to a firm’s value proposition, organically grown and endemic to the corporate culture and proactively conveyed to the market as a premium brand.

The internal development or organic growth of best practices as a central desire and objective of the corporate enterprise is revealed as central to product brand and the value proposition offered in the market. This positions the firm and its products as a premium brand. The business benefits of a sound practice program are enhanced margins, product performance and the attraction of quality clients and vendor relationships. More importantly it differentiates the firm in a crowded market because its quality brand is perceived by the market as endemic to the firm’s corporate culture and as such is inherently superior to something that is externally imposed by some governmental or regulatory body. On a macro-economic level the socialist or state capitalist experiments in highly regulated planned economies are the logical extreme and true antithesis of a sound practice culture.

Within the hedge fund industry in the United States the concept of Sound Practices first surfaced in an industry study entitled Sound Practices for Hedge Funds. The study was an industry response to the Clinton Administration’s request to examine the lessons learned from the Long Term Capital Management implosion and recommend basic guidelines to avoid similar disastrous occurrences in the future. The paper was a breakthrough on a number of fronts, placing the science of risk management and the utilization of risk measurement tools at the center of the investment management enterprise. Though the study was a political response to a catastrophic market event, the real purpose of the study was to temper the drive to regulate the hedge fund industry. In essence, the authors of the study asserted that regulatory oversight is not needed if hedge funds implement and maintain a sound practices program. Sound practices will allow investment companies to remain unregulated and will assure that the industry is fully capable of self-policing through the creation of practice standards. Indeed, any regulation or governmental oversight will further drive the industry offshore to more discreet and tax friendly domiciles and could potentially drain capital and liquidity from the US capital markets.

Operational Risk Mitigation

As previously stated, developing and adhering to a set of best practices principals and guidelines will add intrinsic value to product and corporate brand. The purveyors of Business Performance Management (BPM) solutions routinely boast the claim that publicly listed companies that practice BPM have P/E ratios that trade at a 15% premium to industry peers who have not implemented a BPM strategy. The question whether BPM is a silver bullet to enhance market value or whether BPM practitioners are leading companies dedicated to implementing programs and mechanisms to build shareholder value are irrelevant. What is important is that BPM practitioners are implementing processes and tools to understand and isolate operational risk to create product delivery and decision support mechanisms that build intrinsic product and corporate brand value. Thus at its heart, BPM practitioners seek to heal the bifurcation of marketing and operational risk management and firmly establish and display the synthesis as central to the value proposition a company delivers to its clients.

Operational risk factors in the investment management complex are numerous. They include valuation practices, system infrastructure, business continuity contingencies, vendor and service provider dependencies, risk management tools, risk management function segregation and asset gathering or capital introduction and investment acceptance principles. All of these risk factors are significant and each one on its own could threaten the ongoing viability of the enterprise. Each risk factor must be addressed in detail with a comprehensive programmatic approach to develop and implement processes and controls to enhance best practices to support the function and mitigate the risk factor associated with the business process. The Basel Capital Accord (Basel ll) proposes the introduction of a capital charge related to the operational risks of financial institutions. Basel II defines operational risk as “the risk of direct or indirect loss resulting from inadequate or failed internal processes, people and systems or from external events.”

As an example, poor record keeping or an honest miscalculation on a corporate action treatment or security valuation can be forgiven. After all, the restatement of earnings -even during the Sarbanes Oxley Era- in corporate America is common. Laundering money for criminal enterprises, or heaven forbid, financing terrorism goes way past lax controls. In the eyes of the law it is criminal, in the eye’s of regulatory authorities it’s a serious offence, and a heavy fine and asset forfeiture is possible. If this occurs, in the mind of the consumer the fund manager is guilty of two counts of treason. The first count of treason the fund manger is guilty of is against his country. The second count the fund manager is guilty of is the betrayal of a sacred fiduciary duty. A hedge fund manager would probably never recover from this type of avoidable catastrophic risk event.

Fund managers need not look at compliance with the USA Patriot Act as another cumbersome compliance requirement that will be expensive to address. The belief that compliance will antagonize or annoy potential clients and may in fact drive them to a competitor whose controls are not as stringent and whose compliance laxity facilitates transactions by making it easier for investors to place assets with the competitor may hold some truth. But shouldn’t a fund manager avoid those types of clients anyway?

Compliance with The USA Patriot Act requires that investment companies conduct due diligence and maintain and administer a Customer Identification Program (CIP). Investment companies should view compliance with the Act as an opportunity to develop a Know Your Customer (KYC) capability that enhances and enriches the client relationship with the firm. When fund managers make KYC the cornerstone of their product development initiatives marketing will then truly serve the risk management requirements of clients.

The process of conducting the KYC due diligence exercise results in a more in-depth understanding of the customer. As managers are verifying customer identification information they will routinely uncover residential, employment and family histories that give them a better perspective on the client’s needs, their appetite for risk, other fiduciary relationships the client has and the source of the clients wealth. The regulatory objective of the KYC process is to verify the clients identity and to make sure they are not a money launderer or terrorist. The sound practice objective of the KYC process is to cover the regulatory requirements and more importantly to gain insights and understandings into their personal and business motivations. Armed with this understanding the manager can design or offer an investment product that will address the client’s risk management requirement. Client’s will appreciate the fact that managers are conducting this due diligence to insure that their funds will not be commingled with money launderers or terrorists, and that the firm is taking appropriate steps to insure that they transact business with reputable clients whose ethical and moral standards are similar to their own high standards.

As clients experience the KYC discovery process, they will begin to understand that the firm is committed to delivering a qualitatively superior value proposition. The client experience will help them to understand that the marketing focus of the firm is to acquire trusted customers and the depth and quality of client relationships are established to understand client needs and requirements. The client will also gain the assurance that regulatory risk and the potential for large fines and asset forfeitures are minimized due to the care the firm has exercised in determining that its clients are the right type of clientele and that the firm’s management has created operational controls and processes to prevent the risk of money laundering within the investment management enterprise.

Furthermore, subscription and redemption releases are facilitated due to proper controls in place with administrators and custodial institutions. This places enhanced liquidity at a fund manager’s disposal allowing the manager to practice effective cash management techniques that position the manager to take advantage of investment opportunities that may arise. This raises the possibility of developing a more effective collateral management capability that will tighten spreads on haircuts and dramatically reduce financing expenses. The credit rating of the firm would improve allowing lenders to further reduce financing rates to capture the funds business in a competitive credit and financing market. The reduction in the cost of capital can dramatically affect investment performance and the marketers can truly boast of a source of alpha that is directly attributable to operational sound practice processes.

Having proper procedures and business processes in place with administrators and custodian institutions will also facilitate the transfer of shareholder data to accountants for tax and audit purposes. This will expedite the delivery of tax and performance information to shareholders, generating savings in preparation fees and lessening the possibility of costly restatements. This will reduce and maintain fund expense ratios to absolute minimums. Marketers can clearly demonstrate that the fund managers are good stewards and are as concerned with minimization of business expenses as well as investment performance and high watermarks.

Increased transparency and the opportunity to dramatically enhance shareholder communications and reporting will be a strong attraction to many investors. Indeed, many institutional investors demand a level of transparency, communication protocols, and reporting tools that would have been unthinkable only a short while ago. As sophisticated institutional participation grows within the industry, the implementation of a sound practice program will be the only way hedge fund products can incorporate the necessary value proposition that addresses their risk management profiles and requirements. Sound practices and the compliance function become significant differentiators and powerful marketing tools. At last, the bifurcation is healed.

James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank has been quoted as saying, “Corporate governance is about promoting corporate fairness, transparency and accountability.” Sound Practices is a necessary prerequisite for effective and ethical corporate governance. Fund managers must accept it’s precepts and sell side institutions and other industry participants and service providers must demand compliance, disclosure, ethical trading principals, honest research, operational integrity and a full commitment to its implementation and adherence. Effective corporate governance practices will restore the faith of the investing public in the global financial services industry and maintain the rationality of the world’s capital markets. It will also please investors to see realized enhanced returns on investment portfolios and help fund managers to fully participate and enjoy the benefits of a thriving hedge fund practice.

Originally written January 5, 2004, the article is significant because it raises concerns about financial services product marketing practices that still need to be addressed six and half years later.

You Tube Music Video: Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells

Risk: regulatory, consumer confidence, sound practices

June 7, 2010 Posted by | AML, banking, Basel II, credit crisis, hedge funds, investments, marketing, operations, private equity, product, product liability, regulatory, reputational risk, risk management, sound practices | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Profitability of Patriotism: SME Lending

What a  difference a year makes.  A year ago the banks came crawling to Washington begging for a massive capital infusion to avoid an Armageddon of the global financial system.  They sent out an urgent SOS for a $750 billion life preserver of tax payers money to keep the banking system liquid.  Our country’s chief bursar Hank Paulson, designed a craft that would help the banks remain afloat.  Into the market maelstrom Mr. Paulson launched the USS TARP as the vehicle to save our  distressed ship of state.  The TARP would prove itself to be our arc of national economic salvation.  The success of the TARP has allowed the banks to generate profits in one of the most prolific turnarounds since Rocky Balboa’s heartbreaking split decision loss to Apollo Creed.  Some of the banks have repaid the TARP loans to the Fed.  Now as Christmas approaches and this incredible year closes bankers have visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads as they dream about how they will spend this years bonus payments based on record breaking profitability.   President Obama wants the banks to show some love and return the favor by sharing more of their balance sheets by lending money to small and mid-size enterprises (SME).

Yesterday President Obama held a banking summit in Washington DC.  Mr. Obama wanted to use the occasion to shame the “fat cat bankers” to expand their lending activities to SMEs.  A few of the bigger cats were no shows.  They got fogged in at Kennedy Airport.  They called in to attend the summit by phone.    Clearly shame was not the correct motivational devise to encourage the bankers to begin lending to  SMEs.    Perhaps the President should have appealed to the bankers sense of patriotism; because now is the time that all good bankers must come to the aid of their country.  Failing that, perhaps Mr. Obama should make a business case that SME lending  is good for profits.   A vibrant SME sector is a powerful driver for wealth creation and economic recovery.    A beneficial and perhaps unintended consequence of this endeavor is  the economic security and political stability of the nation.  These  are the  worthy concerns of all true patriots and form a common ground where bankers and government can engage the issues that undermine our national security.

The President had a full agenda to cover with the bank executives.  Executive compensation, residential mortgage defaults, TARP repayment plans, bank capitalization and small business lending were some of the key topics.  Mr. Obama was intent on chastising the reprobate bankers about their penny pinching credit policies toward small businesses.  Mr. Obama conveyed to bankers that the country was still confronted with major economic problems.  Now that the banks capital  base has been stabilized with Treasury supplied funding they must get some skin into the game and belly up to the bar by making more loans to SMEs.

According to the FDIC, lending by U.S. banks fell by 2.8 percent in the third quarter.  This is the largest drop since 1984 and the fifth consecutive quarter in which banks have reduced lending.   The decline in lending is a serious  barrier to economic recovery.  Banks reduced the amount of money extended to their customers by $210.4 billion between July and September, cutting back in almost every category, from mortgage lending to funding for corporations.  The TARP was intended to spur new lending and the FDIC observed that the largest recipients of aid  were responsible for a disproportionate share of the decline in lending. FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair stated,   “We need to see banks making more loans to their business customers.”

The withdrawal of $210 billion in credit from the market is a major impediment for economic growth.  The trend to delever credit exposures is a consequence of the credit bubble and is a sign of prudent management of credit risk.  But the reduction of lending activity impedes economic activity and poses barriers to SME capital formation. If the third quarter reduction in credit withdrawal were annualized the amount of capital removed from the credit markets is about 7% of GDP.  This coupled with the declining business revenues due to recession creates a huge headwind for SMEs.  It is believed that 14% of SMEs are in distress and without expanded access to credit, defaults and  bankruptcies will continue to rise.  Massive business failures by SMEs shrinks market opportunities for banks and threatens their financial health  and long term sustainability.

The number one reason why financial institutions turn down a SME for business loans is due to risk assessment. A bank will look at a number of factors to determine how likely a business will or will not be able to return the money it has borrowed.

SME business managers must conduct a thorough risk assessment if it wishes to attract loan capital from banks.  Uncovering the risks and opportunities associated with products and markets, business functions, macroeconomic risks and understanding the critical success factors and measurements that create competitive advantage are cornerstones of effective risk management.  Bankers need assurances that managers understand the market dynamics and risk factors present in their business and how they will be managed to repay credit providers. Bankers need confidence that managers have identified the key initiatives that maintain profitability.  Bankers will gladly extend credit to SMEs that can validate that credit capital is being deployed effectively by astute managers.  Bankers will approve loans when they are confident that SME managers are making prudent capital allocation decisions that are based on a diligent risk/reward assessment.

Sum2 offers products that combine qualitative risk assessment applications with Z-Score quantitative metrics to assess the risk profile and financial health of SMEs.   The Profit|Optimizer calibrates qualitative and quantitative risk scoring  tools; placing a powerful business management tool into the hands of SME  managers.   SME managers  can  demonstrate  to bankers that their requests for credit capital is based on a thorough risk assessment and opportunity discovery exercise and will be effective stewards of loan capital.

On a macro level SME managers must vastly improve their risk management and corporate governance cultures to attract the credit capital of banks.  Using programs like the Profit|Optimizer,  SME’s can position themselves to participate in credit markets with the full faith of friendly bankers.  SME lending is a critical pillar to a sustained economic recovery and stability of our banking system.  Now is the time for all bankers  to come to the aid of their country by opening up credit channels to SMEs to restore  economic growth and the wealth of our  nation.

You Tube Music Video: Bruce Springsteen, Seeger Sessions, Pay Me My Money Down

Risk: banking, credit, SME

December 16, 2009 Posted by | banking, credit, government, Paulson, Profit|Optimizer, recession, risk management, Sum2, sustainability, TARP, Treasury | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Goldman Sachs as Social Entrepreneur

Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein and his largest investor, The Wizard of Omaha, Warren Buffett , descended from the mystical heights of Valhalla with some startling news.  They were bearing a new mythical golden ring.  As they held the ring aloft they made a bold proclamation.  They would embark on one of the grandest social entrepreneurial programs of all time by offering some of the rings precious power, about $500 million worth, to capital starved small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs).  The 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative will distribute $100 million per year over the next five years to SMEs through Community Development Financial Institutions.

These lords of commerce have heard the cries from endangered SMEs.  In their infinite wisdom Blankfein and Buffet understand that the real economy needs to resuscitate and incubate the critical SME segment as an absolute prerequisite to a vibrant economic recovery.    The buzz about this news in the marketplace ranged from cynical suspicion at one extreme to puzzled bemusement and  ecstatic aplomb at the other.

What motivated Goldman to announce this initiative is an interesting question.  Was it guilt, greed or a sense of corporate social responsibility?  Some suggest it is a master PR move to counter a growing public perception that Goldman Sachs,  the poster child of government favoritism and bailout largess,  has leveraged its unfair advantage to achieve historic levels of profitability.  Thus enabling management to pay obscene bonuses to company employees.  But capital has no psyche,  and half a billion dollars is a tall bill to underwrite absolution for some phantom form of guilt.  True to its nature, capital always  seeks a place where it will find its greatest return.  Goldman and Buffett are casting some major bread on the receding waters of a distressed economy.  As its foretold in the Good Book , doing God’s work will produce a tenfold return.  If the Bible’s math is correct, thats a lot of manna that will rain down from heaven for the shareholders of Goldman Sachs and Berkshire Hathaway.  Looks like our modern day version of Moses and Aaron have done it again.  Leading their investors across the dangerous waters of the global economy to live in the promised land of happy shareholders.

As one of the world’s preeminent investment banks and purveyor of capitalist virtues,  company shareholders must be questioning how Goldman’s managers will realize a return on this investment?  Has management examined the potential corporate and societal moral hazards surrounding the program?  Surely shareholders have asked when they expect to be compensated for this significant outlay of capital.   The desire to realize gain is a more plausible motivator and makes more sense for an enterprise like Goldman and the storied investment Wizard from Omaha.

Its wise to ascribe the best intentions and virtuous motivations to actions that we may not fully understand.  This program should be viewed as a seminal event in the history of corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.  Its important to understand that institutions that practice corporate social responsibility do not engage it solely as a philanthropic  endeavor.  Indeed, the benefits of good corporate citizenship pays multidimensional dividends.  All ultimately accrue to the benefit of company shareholders and the larger community of corporate stakeholders.

Goldman’s  move to walk the point of a capital formation initiative for SMEs seeks to mitigate macroeconomic risk factors that are prolonging the recession and pressuring Goldman’s business.   Goldman needs a vibrant US economy if it is to sustain its profitability,  long term growth and global competitiveness.  Goldman needs a strong regional and local banking sector to support its securitization, investment banking and corporate finance business units.   Healthy SMEs are a critical component to a healthy commercial banking sector.  Goldman recent chartering as an FDIC bank holding company may also be a factor to consider.  This SME lending initiative will provide interesting insights into the dynamics of a market space and potential lines of business that are relatively new to Goldman Sachs.  This initiative might presage a community banking acquisition program by Goldman.  At the very least the community banking sector is plagued with over capacity is in dire need of rationalization.  Goldman’s crack team of corporate finance and M&A professionals expertise would be put to good use here.

Goldman’s action to finance SMEs will also serve to incubate a new class of High Net Worth (HNW) investors.  Flush with cash from successful entrepreneurial endeavors, the nouveau riche will be eager to deploy excess capital into equities and bonds, hedge funds and private equity partnerships.  Healthy equity markets and a growing Alternative Investment Management  market is key to a healthy Goldman business franchise.

Community banks, principal lenders to SMEs are  still reeling from the credit crisis are concerned about troubled assets on their balance sheets.  Bankers can’t afford more write downs on non-performing loans and remain highly risk adverse to credit default exposures.  Local banks have responded by drastically reducing credit risk to SMEs by curtailing new lending activity.  The strain of a two-year recession and limited credit access has taking its toll on SMEs.  The recession has hurt sales growth across all market segments causing SMEs to layoff employees or shut down driving unemployment rates ever higher.  Access to this sector would boost Goldman’s securitization and restructuring advisory businesses positioning it to deepen its participation in the PPIP and TALF programs.

The financial condition of commercial and regional banks are expected to remain stressed for the foreseeable future.  Community banks have large credit exposures to SME and local commercial real estate.  Consumer credit woes and high unemployment rates will generate continued losses from credit cards and auto loans.  Losses from commercial real estate loans due to high vacancy rates are expected to create significant losses for the sector.

Reduced revenue, protracted softness in the business cycle and closed credit channels are creating perfect storm conditions for SME’s. Bank’s reluctance to lend and the high cost of capital from other alternative credit channels coupled with weak cash flows from declining sales are creating liquidity problems for many SMEs.   Its a growing contagion of financial distress.  This contagion could infect Goldman and would have a profound impact on the company’s financial health.

The 10,000 Businesses  initiative will strengthen the free flow of investment capital to finance national economic development and empower SMEs.  It strengthens free market capitalism and has the potential to pool, unleash and focus investment capital into a strategic market segment that has no access to public equity and curtailed lines of traditional bank credit. The 10,000 Businesses initiative  will encourage wider participation by banking and private equity funds.  In the aggregate, this will help to achieve strategic objectives, build wealth and realize broader goals to assure sustainable growth and global competitiveness.  All to the benefit of Goldman Sachs’ shareholders and it global investment banking franchise.

Sum2 believes that corporate social responsibility is a key tenet of a sound practice program. Goldman Sach’s has always been a market leader.  We salute Goldman Sachs’ initiative and welcome its success.

In  September of 2008,  Sum2 announced The Hamilton Plan calling for the founding of an SME Development Bank (SDB).  The SDB would serve as an aggregator of capital from numerous stakeholders to focus capital investment for SME manufactures.   More on the Hamilton Plan can be read here: SME Development Bank.

Risk:  SME, bank, recession, unemployment, credit, private equity

You Tube Music: 10,000 Manaics, Natalie Merchant: Dust Bowl

November 20, 2009 Posted by | banking, corporate social responsibility, Hamilton Plan, hedge funds, investments, off shore, PPIP, private equity, Profit|Optimizer, recession, reputation, reputational risk, SME, sound practices, Sum2, TALF, unemployment | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cost of Banking Goes Up

screamThe severity of the banking crisis is evident in the 95 banks the FDIC has closed during 2009. The inordinate amount of bank failures has placed a significant strain on the FDIC insurance fund. The FDIC insurance fund protects bank customers from losing their deposits when the FDIC closes an insolvent bank.

The depletion of the FDIC Insurance fund is accelerating at an alarming rate. At the close of the first quarter, the FDIC bank rescue fund had a balance of $13 billion. Since that time three major bank failures, BankUnited Financial Corp, Colonial BancGroup and Guaranty Financial Group depleted the fund by almost $11 billion. In addition to these three large failures over 50 banks have been closed during the past six months. Total assets in the fund are at its lowest level since the close of the S&L Crisis in 1992. Bank analysts research suggests that FDIC may require $100 billion from the insurance fund to cover the expense of an additional 150 to 200 bank failures they estimate will occur through 2013. This will require massive capital infusions into the FDIC insurance fund. The FDIC’s goal of maintaining confidence in functioning credit markets and a sound banking system may yet face its sternest test.

FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair is considering a number of options to recapitalize the fund. The US Treasury has a $100 billion line of credit available to the fund. Ms. Bair is also considering a special assessment on bank capital and may ask banks to prepay FDIC premiums through 2012. The prepay option would raise about $45 billion. The FDIC is also exploring capital infusions from foreign banking institutions, Sovereign Wealth Funds and traditional private equity channels.

Requiring banks to prepay its FDIC insurance premiums will drain economic capital from the industry. The removal of $45 billion dollars may not seem like a large amount but it is a considerable amount of capital that banks will need to withdraw from the credit markets with the prepay option. Think of the impact a targeted lending program of $45 billion to SME’s could achieve to incubate and restore economic growth. Sum2 advocates the establishment of an SME Development Bank to encourage capital formation for SMEs to achieve economic growth.

Adding stress to the industry, banks remain obligated to repay TARP funds they received when the program was enacted last year. To date only a fraction of TARP funds have been repaid. Banks also remain under enormous pressure to curtail overdraft, late payment fees and reduce usurious credit card interest rates. All these factors will place added pressures on banks financial performance. Though historic low interest rates and cost of capital will help to buttress bank profitability, high write offs for bad debt, lower fee income and decreased loan origination will test the patience of bank shareholders. Management will surely respond with a new pallet of transaction and penalty fees to maintain a positive P&L statement. Its like a double taxation for citizens. Consumers saddled with additional tax liabilities to maintain a solvent banking system will also face higher fees  charged y their banks so they can repay the loans extended by the US Treasury to assure a well functioning financial system for the benefit of the republic’s citizenry.

You Tube Music Video: The 5th Dimension, Up Up and Away

Risk: bank failures, regulatory, profitability, political, recession, economic recovery, SME

September 30, 2009 Posted by | banking, business, commerce, economics, government, Hamilton Plan, private equity, regulatory, SME, sovereign wealth funds, TARP, Treasury | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments