Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

Intellectual Capital Deflation

balloonBearingPoints Chapter 11 filing represents a watershed type event.

The filing by the global consulting firm BearingPoint puts it on life support or at the very least in an intensive care unit. BearingPoint the bulge bracket consulting firm that was spun off from KPMG due to regulatory mandates concerning the separation of accounting and advisory businesses is in serious trouble. It has been struggling under a mountain of debt and the bankruptcy filing will give the firm protection from creditors while it seeks to reorganize its business.

BearingPoint’s filing is an interesting metaphor about the deflation of intellectual capital.  Ideas, creativity, knowledge, productivity and innovation are some of the words that that we closely associate with intellectual capital.  Once we may have even thought this form of capital to be immune from the vicissitudes of the banality of markets.  I surmise that the recent business cycle exposes that idea as based more in our narcissistic prejudices then the cold objective realities of efficient markets.  As we witnessed radical capitalism’s continued drive of extreme rationalization through monetization we discovered the price of anything but seriously lost sight of the value of everything.

During the 1990’s I remember always being impressed and astonished by the reports of the rising productivity of the American workforce.  Year in year out the rising productivity was the proud boast and confirmation of American managerial brilliance.  But today that claim looks spurious at best.  Rethinking this proclamation may reveal this was accomplished not by brilliant management innovation but by outsourcing operational functions to subsistence based economies; and some artful balance sheet wizardry that aligned business performance ratios to maximize shareholder returns; particularly senior managers whose stock options were critical design considerations as to how those ratios were engineered.  Indeed if productivity is a proxy for innovation, the productivity of  American capitalism was outpacing the most aggressive predictions of Moore’s Law.  True technology contributed to massive gains in productivity but in many ways was an economic rent seeking agent that enabled a flawed economy to sustain itself through over leveraged economic and misdirected intellectual capital.

Today we are confronted with the evaporation of massive social wealth that the IMF estimates to be almost $4.1 trillion in the financial service sector.  I suspect a good portion of this value was carried on the balance sheet as good will.  And anyone that has been living close the plant earth the past couple of years can attest to how the good will of corporations has been severely discounted.  Perhaps this wealth never really existed and as the saying goes “you can’t lose what you never had”.  We can take comfort in that and perhaps we can look on the bemused folly of central governments eagerly trying to stimulate economic growth to levels of our recent unsustainable past.  I must admit that my sympathies and conviction stand with the Keynesian but I am beginning to wonder if they are chasing the long tails of ghostly economic shadows cast by AIG’s worthless CDS franchise.  Once considered a revolutionary innovation cooked up by the finest minds of the capital markets financial engineers are now perplexing conundrums wrapped in a riddle and remain valuation Level Three FAS 157 mysteries.

To be sure intellectual capital deflation is a huge subject.  I must also admit that this blogger lacks the time, skill and brain power to elucidate and articulate the numerous nuances and depth this assertion deserves and requires.  I guess we could sum it up in a sound bite like the “dumbing down of America” but I believe that merely addresses the race to the bottom marketers skillfully cultivated to gobble up a greater portion of that ever fickle and fluid market share pie.  In a way the deflation we speak of turns this dumbing down on its head and now claims the purveyors of fine ideas and clever tactics devised by the corporate marketing geniuses who were able to enrich themselves by conceiving the brilliant plans to convince us to buy so they can sell as much useless junk to as many people as possible.

The monetization of intellectual capital by incorporated consultants are increasingly becoming inefficient.  New technologies that are enablers of strategic thinking has large consultancies disappearing into the computing cloud.  Large bull pens of gray matter are inefficient as innovation in small firms are more efficient purveyors of thinking large to solve small problems or thinking small to solve larger problems. The large corporate dinosaurs that protected bloated bureaucracies enmeshed in group think stasis increasing showed an inability to be agents of innovation.  They boldly proclaimed best practices to justify and position themselves in the executive office but now that the large corporations have been decapitalized their value creation mantras dissipated as markets capitalization fell.

In appears that the bulge bracket firms viability were dependent on knowledge transfer initiatives to underdeveloped economies to support outsourcing; and rent seeking business models dependent on regulatory mandates of Sarbanes Oxley, GBLA, COBIT, EURO conversions, Basel II, Y2K, PATRIOT ACT, HIPAA, FISMA etc etc. Their business models profited from significant business drivers of the past two decades the reallocation of capital to emerging markets and the guarantee of market protection due to governmental regulatory mandates.  In both instances value creation from the deployment of intellectual capital proved to be unsustainable.

Consider the financial services industry and hedge funds.  Hedge funds claim to offer uncorrelated investment products but most of the hedge funds performance fell in lock step with the market index averages.  Investors pay premiums to participate in absolute return strategies offered by hedge funds.  Fund managers make the claim of absolute returns based on their superior insights that their intellectual capital confers on their investment strategies.  Last year that claim was demolished to devastating effect.

Newspaper publishers are also experiencing a decline in the portfolio value of their intellectual capital.  But many believe that it is more of  a question of their antiquated business model and once they figure out how to Googlize their business model to sufficiently monetize its intellectual capital shareholders will once again be rewarded with an appreciation in its investment and the true value of their intellectual capital will be realized.

The markets are dramatically changing. Today the question is not so much about ideas and strategy its a question of execution. Just as in the recent past it was about raising capital and acquiring assets now its about making informed capital allocation decisions and liquidity. Its true you need the target to shoot at but you also need munitions, a good scope with adjusted cross hairs and a gun. The value proposition of consultants is quickly becoming marginalized.

Its a poor business model. It scales poorly, its racked with inefficiencies, its built on protected markets and knowledge segregation. Now that those barriers are falling and more and more MBAs are out of work the value of this form of intellectual capital continues to fall.

Consultants all to often are beholden to their process biases. They find it difficult to get out of the box and routinely ask their engagements to climb into the box with them. That said it is an absolute necessity that business redefines its business model to address current market realities. It needs to do so with dispassionate dispatch and it needs to create a unique value proposition that differentiates the brand and adds identifiable alpha in an expanded value delivery chain.

Its a big challenge that many professional services firms need to confront. Our firm went through that transition 6 years ago. We went from a strategic sound practices consulting firm to a product creation and marketing firm dedicated to the commercial application of sound practices. For Sum2 creating value was a very different value proposition then delivering value. The need to build equity in our business was our principal concern. Building and marketing tangible product value is how you create a sustainable business model.

Corporations are becoming disenthralled of their self perceived cleverness. Many believe that major investments in applied intelligence create a culture of insularity that hedges all risks and builds enterprise value. In the past it allowed executives to hide behind a wall of opaqueness. They bought the best and brightest minds from our esteemed business schools convinced that this treasure of intellectual capital would protect them. They believed the digital blips of risk models to be sparkling Rosetta Stones containing the secrets that unlock the mysteries of effective risk management, value creation and business sustainability. The codified results of these algorithmic exercises are revered as holy Dead Sea Scrolls that offers the protection of an supernatural mojo. This is the thinking of a bankrupt brain trust.

You Tube Video: Nena, 99 Luft Ballons

Risk: Group Think, sustainable business model, value creation

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April 24, 2009 Posted by | banking, bankruptsy, Basel II, business continuity, economics, FASB, investments, media, risk management, Sum2 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Victory for Republic Workers

workers41MASSES

AMONG the mountains I wandered and saw blue haze and red crag and was amazed;  On the beach where the long push under the endless tide maneuvers, I stood silent; Under the stars on the prairie watching the Dipper slant over the horizon’s grass, I was full of thoughts.

Great men, pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children–these all I touched, and felt the solemn thrill of them.

And then one day I got a true look at the Poor, millions of the Poor,
patient and toiling; more patient than crags, tides, and stars;
innumerable, patient as the darkness of night–
and all broken, humble ruins of nations.

Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems

The laid off United Electrical Union workers who took over their shuttered Chicago workplace to receive separation compensation due them under the Federal WARN Act have been offered a settlement by Republic management. According to breaking stories, The Bank of America and JP Morgan have created a fund that will provide each Republic worker 8 weeks pay, any accrued vacation time and a continuation of health and welfare benefits for the next two months.

We thank the banks for making the funds available to redress the just grievance of the Republic workers. Unfortunately the close of this incident signals the beginning unemployment for the 300 Republic workers. In this economy the availability of well paying jobs will be difficult to secure. We wish them well in their search. We once again commend the Republic workers for standing up for their rights. Their steadfast commitment in the fight for justice is a courageous example of speaking truth to power and a lesson that power concedes nothing without a struggle. You are the salt of the earth. You are a light to the world. Thank you.

We wish the Republic workers a holiday filled with abundant joy.

You Tube Music Video: Pete Seeger, Union Maid

Risk: labor unions, bankruptcy, credit, unemployment, banking,labor unrest

December 10, 2008 Posted by | banking, bankruptsy, folk, poetry, unions | , , , , | Leave a comment

Corporate Extinctions

A large meteor that hit the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago is considered one of the causal factors that led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. The theory gained wide acceptance after a photogemmetric satellite captured the image of the Chicxulub Crater centered just off the peninsulas northeast shore. The meteor theory seemed to solve the dinosaur extinction mystery of how a dominant species that ruled the earth for 200 million years can suddenly disappear. Apparently the theory suggests that the extinction happened more with a bang then a whimper.

Like the Chicxulub meteor, the economic crash of 2008 promises to claim a dramatic toll of corporate victims and drastically alter the landscape of the global capitalist system. The casualty list prominently includes some marquis corporate banking brands like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, WAMU, Wachovia, Fannie, Freddie, Fortis, RBS, NorthernRock and threatens to claim the solvent souls of a UBS or Citibank. The State of California and the Sovereign State of Iceland are also endangered and the economic crisis may claim them as its biggest prize.

Hedge funds are quickly folding up shop. Morgan Stanley estimates that the AUM of the industry may shrink from $1.9tr to $900bn due to market losses and investor redemption and withdrawals. At its peak the global hedge fund industry was estimated to offer AIM products by over 6000 providers. By the close of the next year the size of the industry will be considerably smaller as capacity downsizes to serve less demand. Downsizing will also be the prevailing theme for community banks, RIA’s and CTA’s as excess capacity is worked out of the system through closures, consolidations and seizures. This contraction will effect industry service providers that sell services to the financial services market. Lawyers, accountants, IT providers and consultants will be hard pressed to maintain their book of business as the market for their services contracts.

Free marketeers and Social Darwinists may find it right and fitting that the financial services industry comprises the bulk of the corporate casualty list due to their culpability in nurturing this economic apocalypse and their proximity to the epicenter of the crash. The Hollow Men who led the US economic colossus to this dramatic self immolation however won’t have to fall on their swords. Their champion in the Treasury Mr. Paulson has swaddled them in a protective TARP so these masters of the universe can don superman capes to continue their selfless endeavor of saving the US economy from a total collapse.

Unfortunately the deadly meteor that almost liquidated the banking system is spreading outward to what some refer to as the real economy. Goldman Sachs’ indicates that the recession will shave a cool $1.3tr from the GDP. This will inhibit buying power by individuals, corporations and governments. Some economists fear that this will create enormous deflationary pressure prolonging the recession. Many see similarities with the Japanese recession of the 1980’s. That recession brought on by the burst of Godzilla sized real estate and equity market bubbles lasted for over a decade. Japanese central bankers cut interest rates to almost zero and the vicious downward spiral of the economy recovered as a result of SE Asian and North American market demand drivers that fueled tremendous export growth.

Retail is another sector that will be particularly hit hard by corporate failures. Industry statistics indicate that 14,000 retailers are expected to close their doors during the next year. US auto dealerships from the Big Three are expected to contract by 25%. The auto industry is a major hub of a large and intricate manufacturing supply chain and as such this sector will be hit hard with business closures as well. Construction, housing and domestic oriented leisure industries will continue to stagnate as the American consumer buying power evaporates. Not good news for an economy so strongly dependent on consumer spending.

Yesterday the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) announced that the economy went into a recession in December 2007. Its a bit funny that it took a year for the NBER to hear, feel and detect the Chicxulub Meteor that crashed into our economy. Today’s Employment Report from ADP indicates that the US economy shed another 250,000 jobs during the month of November. Now that the reality of the recession is upon us the corporate endangered species list will be a pressing problem and success metric that the Obama Administration will need to squarely address with any stimulus package he plans to enact to get the economy moving again. This actually bodes well for the passage of a rescue package for the Big Three Automakers. One thing is certain, urgent action is required or our economy will continue to go down not with a bang but with a whimper.

You tube video: Ranny Weeks and Orchestra: Out of Nowhere

Risk: recession, bankruptcy, solvency, rescue package, economic stimulus

December 4, 2008 Posted by | banking, bankruptsy, Bear Stearns, economics, Paulson, pop, unemployment | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bankrupt Iceland Goes Fishing

The global economic crisis is serious business. Iceland the small North Atlantic island country of 400,000 is nearly broke. Like the rest of us sub-prime borrowers it seems Iceland over extended its credit line in a buying binge of UK and Russian equities.

To deal with the problem Iceland has nationalized its banks and has closed its equity market until some rationality returns. Though at present the fortunes of this volcanic isle are receding faster then its dwindling climate challenged glaciers it does have a recovery plan. Iceland’s leaders have called for the country to return to its roots as the hub of the North Atlantic fishing industry. Its always a wise move for any corporate entity to return to its center of competency when faced with adversity.

Lets hope that the fishing stocks swimming in the water and the ones listed on the exchange are sufficient to return the islands inhabitants to a well deserved prosperity.

Music Video: Billy Joel Downeaster Alexa

Risk: country default, geo risk, debtor nation

October 13, 2008 Posted by | bankruptsy, credit crisis, economics, pop | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New American Diaspora

Ever since our ancient ancestors first walked out of the Great Rift Valley to populate other regions of the globe our species has been on the move. Critical turning points in world history have always been marked with dramatic shifts in population and settlement of people. The Phonetians, Greeks, Polynesians, Vikings, Crusaders, Mongols, Hebrews and the Pre-Columbian Asians who crossed the Baring Strait land bridge are storied migrations, explorations and conquests that shaped civilization and continue to inform our understanding of world history.

American history is full of examples of dramatic population shifts. The arrival of European settlers, the introduction of African’s through the slave trade, the westward expansion of America, the Trail of Tears of Native American resettlements onto reservations, the arrival of Chinese laborers in San Francisco, the second wave of Ellis Island European immigrants, the migration of African Americans to northern cities at the beginning of the 20th century, the Dust Bowl migrations of Midwest farmers and the most recent immigration of Hispanics, Caribbean, Middle and Far Eastern people are dramatic examples from our country’s short history of major population shifts.

Global climate change and the economic impact of high energy prices are causing dramatic shifts and migrations of people throughout the world. The United States will not be immune from its affects. Hurricane Katrina depopulated the City of New Orleans and is altering our propensity to build houses on barrier islands. The floods along the Mississippi River Valley, drought in the Southwestern states and the devastating wildfires in California and other western states are climate influenced events that are forcing populations to resettle to more eco-friendly locations. History may be rereading and we may be witnessing a reenactment of John Steinbeck’s great historical fiction masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath .

The permanent rise in energy prices will reverse the urban exodus of the middle class to suburbia. As the car culture took hold of post war America, cheap gas, and vast highway systems encouraged the development of suburbs. Now that gas prices are skyrocketing and mass transit infrastructure continues to be neglected the middle class will migrate back to the city to live in close proximity to resources, jobs and services. Urban exclusivity will be protected by congestion pricing programs, the absence of affordable housing and high cost of services. This will create a dramatic demographic shift in the America as lower income people are forced out of the city creating a growing population of rural poor. Social service reservations may need to be created to assure subsistence for the rural poor.

The stated intention of airlines to restrict and eliminate service to second tier cities will tend to isolate these communities and create high concentrations of the economically disadvantaged. This will create tremendous strain on local city and state government’s ability to provide basic services to the new classes of disenfranchised people. High energy prices and the changing American topology due to climate change pose a multitude of risks to the fiscal viability of local governments.

Let’s close with Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad.

Risk: demographic, tax base, urban, rural, climate change, population,

July 9, 2008 Posted by | bankruptsy, credit crisis, environment, folk, homelessness, social unrest | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Creeping Credit Crisis or Poor Risk Management?

I receive a daily feed from Biz Journal. One of the stories from The Triangle Business Journal was a Chapter 7 bankruptcy of CJ Woodmaster, a manufacturer and retailer of wooden furniture down in the Tar Heel State. I don’t know the details surrounding the causes of the liquidation of CJ Woodmaster other then a few quotes by attorney William Yeager, the bankruptcy counsel for the company, “Their level of debt and the limitation of getting new credit lines snuck up on them,” he says. Mr. Yeager continues to state that hundreds of customers who have paid for purchases but have yet to have their order filled will lose money. Ouch!

I began to shake my head. Aha, hard evidence of the recession and an example of contagion from the soft housing market. You don’t need furniture for houses that are not being built and consumers whose credit cards are maxed out can’t buy a sofa from CJ. Yet another example of the creeping credit crisis that prowls around like a ravenous cougar seeking some small business to devour.

Mr. Yeager goes on to offer some additional observations about CJ Woodmaster. He says he is trying to get a handle on the company’s assets and liabilities from the numerous companies set up by CJ Woodmaster and further adds that the IRS is a major creditor and that “various business units owe tens of thousands of dollars in taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. The federal tax liens date back as far as 2002″.

Now I’m not so sure that the creeping credit crisis can be blamed for this one. The few cursory observations I gleaned from this brief article suggests to me a telling breakdown in CJ’s ability to manage risk factors that eventually led to its Chapter 7 Bankruptcy filing.

Having hundreds of customers waiting for orders to be filled is a sign of a vibrant company. If CJ had that many customers and it was losing money it indicates unrealistic product prices it charged to its clients. This mispricing could be the result of an inefficient manufacturing operation or the strangulating costs associated with developing and managing distribution through a chain of retail outlets. Perhaps CJ should have decided it was either a manufacturer or distributor of furniture goods. Not both.

This assertion may be supported by additional observations made by Mr. Yeager in the article. Mr. Yeager is having difficulty getting a handle on the extent of the company’s financial condition. He blames the complexity of the company structure and apparently the numerous financial statements he must put together. This is evidence of a problem in corporate structure and governance, information management and reporting. These factors may lie at the root of CJ’s inability to determine inefficiencies in its manufacturing or distribution functions and why its integrated strategy was unprofitable.

Lastly if a company has a series of tax liens pending for five years this is a major red flag. CJ’s inability or reluctance to satisfy tax liabilities shouts a disturbing ambivalence to corporate governance. It is a disclosure that would give any potential credit provider or equity investor a strong reason to pause.

April 3, 2008 Posted by | bankruptsy, credit crisis | Leave a comment