The view from my parking lot as I left the office around 5pm:
|« Dec||Feb »|
Speaking of not being able to handle prosperity, the first details of Jerome Kerviel’s testimony have been leaked:
As of Dec. 31, 2007, my gains had reached â‚¬1.4 billion ($2 billion), which I had not declared to the bank. At that point I had been overtaken by events and didn’t know how to present this to the bank. It represented undeclared cash of â‚¬1.4 billion. No one else had ever realized such a sum, which represented 50% of the total result of the equity-index division of SocGen. I didn’t know how to deal with it, I was happy and proud of myself, but I didn’t know how to justify it. Thus I decided not to declare it, and to hide the sum, I created an opposite fictional operation.
My pal Jon-Eric has brought me along to some NY/NJ Giants football games in the last few years, on occasions when his brother can’t use their ticket. The seats his family has are great: lower tier, 47-yard line, just below the overhang of the mezzanine. It’s a great view, somewhat protected from crappy weather, and we always have great tailgate get-togethers in the parking lot beforehand.
And when the Giants invariably cough up a lead, fumble during a big drive, or call 3 consecutive runs for -2 yards, we are graced with his dad’s signature comment: “They can’t handle prosperity, Jon-Eric!”
We joke about having a betting pool based on what point in the game his dad will utter those words, to the point of one of us handing a $5 to the other after the statement.
Which brings me to Starbucks. Our trip to Seattle last year coincided with Howard Schultz’ publicized memo about how his company had lost its way and needed to rediscover itself. Since, Schultz has reclaimed the CEO position, and is trying to retrench the company.
The story of Starbucks and how it handles “life at the top” echoes Jon-Eric’s dad’s sentiments: they can’t handle prosperity.
One of the aspects of business that fascinates me is this question of how a company copes with being a leader. I find it instructional to look at how businesses try to stay on top, particularly when they’ve established an overwhelming position in their field. Because they never stay on top: an unforeseen competitor shows up and eats its lunch, or the game changes around the market leader and its field is rendered useless, or it engages in dubious business practices that land it in serious regulatory trouble. Or a combination.
In Starbucks’ case, market dominance led to an attempt to diversify its product offerings, with the attendant loss of “romance” that Schultz lamented in his memo. I’d love to see a time-lapse map showing the opening and closing of Starbucks locations in the last 10 years; I bet there’d be a very organic/epidemiological appearance to it.
Here’s an article on how the company is trying to cope, and how local coffeeshops are benefiting as Starbucks closes some of its locations.
I think the upshot of the piece is the discovery that, even if the company is facing upheaval, at least it’s taken a big step in making sure its employees don’t breed:
Geoff Vuleta, chief executive of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consultancy in New York, said Starbucks had lost focus on the experience that drew customers in the first place by neutering the baristas and by crowding the stores with merchandise, or as he put it, “replacing mystique with relentless commerce.”
Me? I still think their black coffee sucks, and that’s my make-or-break criteria. Maybe I need to try it with some sambuca, the way Jon-Eric’s dad’s pals end our tailgate parties before the Giants’ games. . .
(Update! Starbucks is going to stop selling sandwiches. I didn’t know they were selling sandwiches, but they showed me! The company is also planning to announce “five bold innovations” at its shareholders meeting on March 19. Unless it involves a caffeine IV-drip, I ain’t interested.)
I’m off to the optometrist, now that I’ve learned that you can’t order contact lenses without a prescription. Thanks, opti-cartel!
I was saving this for the right occasion. It is really not safe for work, if you work in a cubicle farm.
Of course, I don’t endorse any of the aforementioned behavior.
It’s gettin’ so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can’t trust the fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance, and then you’re back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle.
â€”Johnny Caspar, Miller’s Crossing
In the midst of massive writeoff & layoff announcements from major U.S. banks, France’s Societe General SA announced a $7.2 billion writeoff (14% of its market capitalization), much of which was blamed on the actions of Jerome Kerviel, a low-level trader who had somehow managed to place $73 billion on stock-market bets (the bank’s market cap is $50 billion). The case is under investigation, and many outsiders are wondering exactly how one “rogue trader” could put that much money at risk.
A lesser-noted aspect of SG’s writeoff is that it also includes $1.6 billion in subprime mortgage exposure, $800 million in U.S. insurance bond exposure, and another $580 million set aside for future liabilities in those two areas. The bank is trying to raise around $8.0 billion in funds through a new share offering. So, sure, SocGen got wrecked by Kerviel’s improper bets, but it also managed to torch itself for almost $3.0 billion in losses based on bets that were perfectly proper.
And that brings me to the topic of risk. A few months ago, I wrote in my magazine (and reposted here) about the subject in light of quantitative hedge funds, subprime mortgages and Hudson Hawk:
Funnily enough, while we’re free of gold, we haven’t gotten over alchemy. Instead of la machina oro, we have “quant funds,” those hedge funds that employ statistical models so sophisticated that they can “find winning trade strategies,” as the Wall Street Journal puts it. From equations to money, like magic!
Turns out one of these winning trade strategies was investing in financial instruments that were based heavily on subprime mortgages (that is, the practice of giving large loans to people who have poor credit). Some of these sophisticated investing models managed to underestimate the risk of â€” repeat after me â€” giving large loans to people who have poor credit. [. . .]
Evaluating risk â€” the true foundation of finance â€” lost its meaning. For a while.
Now, I know a lot of readers’ eyes tend to glaze over when I try to write about business and/or finance on this site, but I really think
In this instance, I’ve been trying to understand what risk is and why the risk management systems at so many financial institutions determined they could afford to take on the investments that have led to billions of dollars in losses.
For instance, an article in the Wall Street Journal (pay-only, I think) discussed the breakdown in risk protection by companies like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley:
“Until recently, every investment bank believed it had built an outstanding risk-management system,” Ken Moelis, former head of investment banking at UBS, wrote in a November letter to his new firm’s investors. Mr. Moelis now runs his own investment bank. “Through computer models and endless analysis, the banks believed they could measure every risk to the nth degree.” But reliance on such models and manuals “overlooked” the importance of “human judgment and the ability to evaluate the numbers being generated,” he added.
Like there’s no interesting metaphor in that? Come on!
Actually, as I did more reading on the subject in the last few weeks, I discovered that a much better writer than I did the heavy lifting for me! Earlier this month, John Lanchester (author of The Debt To Pleasure, which you really oughtta read) published Cityphilia, an epic article on finance, risk, life in London, the bank-run on Northern Rock, and how Money Changes Everything.
Lanchester does a fantastic job of explaining how credit markets work and why they can fail to work. It’s an awfully long piece, but I highly recommend it for a variety of reasons.
In the midst of the article, Lanchester cites writer Peter Bernstein, who contends that “the study of risk is a humanist project, an attempt to abolish the idea of unknowable fate and replace it with the rational, quantifiable study of chance.”
And I realized that’s where my fascination lies: this idea that the world is knowable.
Whether for the purpose of dismantling fate or “making our fortune,” isn’t that the goal of so much of our art, so many of our sciences?
* * *
Bonus Reading! Joy!
Cityphilia – The article by John Lanchester that kicked this off.
My Theory of Everything – Friedrich von Blowhard on the New Class, which reaps rewards without taking capital risks.
How Real was the Prosperity? – If it turns out that much of the economic growth was based on obviously flawed lending practices, then how real was the money? (Of course, I think about that in a more existential manner than this reporter, but I’m not writing for BusinessWeek.)
Fraud Costs Bank $7.1 Billion – One of the first articles on Jerome Kerviel’s transactions that may or may not sink Societe General SA.
SocGen Had Been Warned About Kerviel – Is 164-year-old SocGen gonna get blow’d up?
Once Again, the Risk Protection Fails – Let’s “manage” “risk”.
Tuesday Morning Quarterback – Gregg Easterbrook has a great section on CEO pay, even after companies get rocked for tremendous losses. (Search for the phrase “suppose the general manager”.)
What’s $34 Billion on Wall St.? – In that same vein . . .
French Trader was Forced To Work 30 Hours a Week – The horrible truth on why Kerviel made all those disastrous market bets.
Double-bonus! Now you can buy Jerome Kerviel t-shirts, ladies! 4.9 billion Euros: Respect!Â
What I’m listening to: Sing You Sinners, by Erin McKeown
What I’m watching: almost finished with the first season of The Wire!
What I’m drinking: Balgownie Estate 2004 shiraz
Where I’m going: No trips planned this week, although we’re thinking of visiting our friends in Providence next weekend
What I’m happy about: that the heavy push to get my Jan/Feb combo issue done in time for Informex has left me a little more leeway in putting together the March issue and planning out April and May
What I’m sad about: that one of my best pals just deployed for “parts unknown” with his carrier group, and the dad of another of my pals just had surgery to remove some not-so-good cells from his pancreas
What I’m pondering: how awesome it is that, when I felt a twinge of nostalgia for my old college stomping grounds on Saturday, I was able to zoom in the satellite view on Google Maps, retrace my old travels, and remember that the Amherst Cinema is where I first watched Miller’s Crossing
Reading over the morning papers online, I came across a WSJ story about the FCC’s five-year-long crusade to fine ABC and some of its affiliates over an episode of NYPD Blue for showing a woman’s butt onscreen before 10 p.m. Takeaway line:
“Although ABC argues, without citing any authority, that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, we reject this argument, which runs counter to both case law and common sense,” the FCC said in its complaint.
Picking up my mail this afternoon, I noticed a Pottery Barn catalog with the tagline, “NEW REDUCED DELIVERY CHARGES ON MORE THAN 65 ITEMS!”
My reaction? “Why, if I order more than 65 items from these jokers, I sure hope I would get reduced delivery charges!”
Then I thought about it a minute and, um, realized that they reduced the delivery charges on more than 65 individual items, not on orders of 65 items or more.