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

Bernanke Bonds, Paulson Puts & Cox Calls

Marx made a wry observation in the opening lines to one of his historical tomes, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.”

So it is with us. We are experiencing a crisis that is the result of a decades long deconstruction of the United States economic, political and cultural infrastructure. It began with the dismantling of our manufacturing base. It continued with the transformation of our capital markets. The purpose of the stock markets was to facilitate capital formation for the creation of businesses and industries. Today the markets function principally for speculative investment and the enrichment purposes of monied interests. Our deconstruction accelerated with extreme political Rovian partisanship and the fear mongering and self serving righteous divisiveness incessantly screamed by the howling yodelers of Talk Radio. Finally our enlightened republic is threatened with extinction by the intentional dismantling of our public education system and the virulent attack on secular learning and civic participation.

During times like these weird things begin to happen. We need to be prepared for anything and everything. That said it is heartening to see the Fed, Treasury and SEC act with such dispatch to address the US role in the global banking crisis. An economic meltdown serves no one. The long term impact of these swift concerted actions will be profound. Undoubtedly these actions will add to the national debt. Some think it unfair to assign this burden onto the backs of future generations. Indeed this country started a revolution on the idea that taxation without representation is an intolerable injustice that cannot stand. Years from now the yet to be born will curse the long dead for their poor stewardship of our national wealth and resources and how it contributed to an extreme and unfair taxation they are forced to pay. That is of course if America does make good on its debt. Alexander Hamilton may be stirring in his grave. So this is a time out from the heat of a global market implosion. What is happening?

PROHIBITION ON SHORT SELLING: Shorting can now be considered a criminal enterprise. At present it only applies to large financial services firms. Lots of firms are clamoring to get on the you can’t short my stock list.

The new national slogan from the SEC should be “GO LONG ON AMERICA!”

REPO MAN:Global Repo Desk was created to facilitate liquidity amongst the global central banking system. London, Tokyo, Frankfurt and the other G8 central bankers are all counter parties to Bernanke’s $180 B liquidity infusion. Paulson’s putting on his old Goldman Sach’s trading cap and promises to trade us out of this bad position.

The Feds new slogan, “NO CENTRAL BANKER LEFT BEHIND!”

GOOD BANK / BAD BANK:Bernanke is using his infinite balance sheet to segregate all the bad debt from the good stuff. Its kind of like what ENRON did as it packaged all its poor debt obligations and parked them in offshore SIVs. Maybe it will work this time because unlike ENRON the Fed can print money. Lots of it.

New Slogan “BERNANKE AND PAULSON, SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM.”

CORPORATE BAILOUTS: The US taxpayer is now the owner of the worlds largest insurance company. It’s $80 B capital infusion in AIG will keep this company solvent for the time being and keep the credit rating agencies from lowering AIG’s credit condition to junk. Cox has requested a copy of Lloyds of London Names List.

New Slogan: “PRAY FOR NO MORE HURRICANES, WE CAN”T AFFORD TO PAY OFF THE CLAIMS”

SHOTGUN WEDDINGS: First it was Bear Stearns and JP. Now its Merrill and B of A. Who’s next?

New Slogan: “WE DO MORE MARRIAGES THEN ELVIS AT A LAS VEGAS DRIVE THROUGH”

INFINITE BALANCE SHEET: That is what they keep saying. The Fed can do these financial gymnastics do to its access to an infinite balance sheet that can finally match infinite assets to cover infinite liabilities. Sounds like a tall order to me but i must admit it sounds pretty good from where I’m sitting today. Don’t know how it will go down with the future generations. From Bernanke’s lips to Gods ear.

New Slogan: “INFINITY, ITS MORE THEN ENOUGH TO GET IT DONE”

Bailout politics will sure to become a bloodsport. Every once in awhile you see the commentators on CNBC smugly ask about a threat to free markets and contemplating about the evolving form of capitalism. I can also hear Palin’s squeaking voice proclaiming she’s ready and offer some sage advise concerning our current plight. Palin would say that if she were so blessed to take the oath of office with her fellow Maverick John McCain, she would immediately put AIG up for sale on e-bay and return the proceeds of the sale to the American taxpayers.

Music: Temptations, Ball of Confusion

Risk: economy, market, future generations

September 19, 2008 Posted by | banking, Bernanke, Bush, Cox, credit crisis, Paulson, pop, TARP | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Monday Morning Fire Drill

The historic actions and non-actions by the Fed and Treasury Department continue the accelerating velocity of change in the global banking system.

The decision not to rescue Lehman Brothers was a sign of confidence in the capital markets. The acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America was a dramatic shattering of the last vestiges of Glass-Steagall Act prohibition of FDIC insured commercial banks owning investment banking institutions. This also represents a radical reconfiguration of the US and global capital markets industries.

Dow constituent AIG and its $1 T balance sheet has been a capital market problem child for the past few years. AIG has been mired in scandal for price fixing insurance premiums, accused of poor governance controls and the market has been critical of AIG for the unmanagability of its business units and the ballooning portfolio of its credit default swap and other risk transfer products correlated to the credit markets. It is seeking a $40 B bridge loan from the Fed to shore up capital while it seeks additional infusions from investors to avoid a credit downgrade by the major credit rating agencies.

The Fed also hinted about the creation of a special solvency fund of pooled assets from SWF, private equity providers, governments and other institutional investors. Perhaps this is the pool that AIG will dive into for its bridge loan?

These are incredible developments and our regulators, governmental institutions and industry executives are doing their best to manage this crisis. They are walking a fine line inching towards the precipice of where free markets and a managed economy intersect.

WOW. Is our hair on fire?

Music: Edward Grieg, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Risk: free markets, banking system, Glass-Steagall Act, Federal Reserve,

September 15, 2008 Posted by | banking, classical, credit crisis, regulatory, sovereign wealth funds | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hedge Funds Flight to Quality

Volatility in the equity markets, credit market dislocations and continued concerns about market liquidity are prompting hedge funds to seek out prime brokerage and custodial relationships with investment banks that boast healthy balance sheets.

JP Morgan’s acquisition of Bear Stearns has given hedge fund mangers pause to think about the financial health and balance sheet condition of their principal counterparties. The potential insolvency of first tier investment banks was once unimaginable. But the near bankruptcy of Bear Stearns due to losses in mortgage derivative and financing businesses, the persistent rumors concerning Lehman Brothers financial condition and the continued quest of Merrill Lynch, Citibank, UBS, AIG and Morgan Stanley to seek funding from Sovereign Wealth Funds to bolster capital adequacy is driving hedge funds to secure relationships with bank’s that have healthy balance sheets.

Risk aversion is a strong theme for all providers of credit. Hedge funds have a voracious appetite for credit. Many hedge funds require generous lines of credit to support highly leveraged and short selling trading strategies. If their prime broker becomes capital constrained these funds will not be able to execute their strategies. So the need to maintain relationships with healthy banks that provide consistent access to large lines of credit is critical.

The potential effect of market contagion in the event of Bear Stearns’ insolvency was the primary issue of concern that prompted the Federal Reserve to take its unprecedented action. Had Bear Stearns become insolvent the levered positions of its substantial hedge fund and correspondent broker clientele would create a wave of defaults that would cascade throughout the global capital market industry. Extreme market volatility and the negative effect on market liquidity in equity, futures, debt and foreign exchange markets could have been dramatic.

Hedge fund managers also require that banks have a product set, support infrastructure and market presence they require as trading strategies become more sophisticated to include numerous asset classes trading on multiple global exchanges. Cross-netting of product set positions and margin account requirements are important for hedge funds as well as the bank. Cross-netting of all positions helps fund mangers to gain preferential finance rates and transaction fees. Cross-netting for bank’s is a critical risk management tool to determine its aggregated exposure to the numerous investment positions of large sophisticated hedge fund complexes.

As the large money center banks struggle to integrate their global capital markets and investment banking businesses, capital adequacy in line with the requirements of the Basel II initiative heighten the need to measure and fund sufficient regulatory capital levels. The temptation of banks to arbitrage their regulatory and economic capital balances will certainly be put to the test as they seek to woo lucrative hedge fund business. The continually expanding global hedge fund industry may pose a competitive threat to the commercial credit side of these banking institutions as liquidity in the credit markets continue to be a pressing concern. It bears watching and it will be interesting to monitor developments to see if community banks can take advantage of its larger competitors capital constraints posed by its focus on capital markets business.

I can hear the frenzied flying now.

You Tube Video: Flight of the Bumblebee

Risk: capital markets, hedge funds, credit, commercial banking, regulatory, Basel II

June 5, 2008 Posted by | banking, Basel II, Bear Stearns, hedge funds, investments, regulatory | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment