Madoff made off with $65 billion

ON 29 June 2009, Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to defauding investors and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. The 71 year-old swindler is due to be released in 2159.

Madoff’s $65 billion investment fraud has been referred to as a gigantic Ponzi scheme “dating at least as far back as the 1980s” (The Economist).

A Ponzi scheme is any kind of fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors rather than from any profits earned. The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi who used the technique in 1920 to attract so much money that his operation became infamous throughout America.

Given the enormity of Madoff’s investment fraud, perhaps we should start referring to this kind of fraudulent operation as a “Madoff scheme”.

Finding and retaining talent

THE ability to find and retain talented employees is vital to sustained business success.

Attractive remuneration, stock options plans, medical benefits, and other incentives are attractive enticements for any employee. But what factors are important in attracting, focusing and retaining the most productive and talented workers?

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, in their international bestselling book “First Break all the Rules”, present the fascinating results from two Gallup studies conducted over a 25 year period. The studies searched for those questions that would elicit positive responses from only the most loyal and talented employees.

As it turns out, the key factors for attracting and retaining the most talented workers can be captured by 12 simple questions.  The more questions that an employee can answer in the affirmative, the more likely they are to be a productive and talented worker:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of the company make you feel like your work is important?
  9. Are your co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have you talked with someone about your progress?
  12. At work, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

Business Mutualism

Business Mutualism

MUTUALISM, a concept from biology, refers to a relationship between two species or organisms in which both benefit from the association.

Following on from the ideas put forward in a recent talk by Robert Full, we can apply this idea to the world of business by considering the idea of “Business Mutualism”.

We might think of Business Mutualism as an association between two separate enterprises, or fields of activity, where:

  1. each enterprise benefits the other, and
  2. collective discoveries emerge beyond those of any single field.

Examples of Business Mutualism

One example of Business Mutualism would be the interaction between the IT and design industries. Information technology has provided designers with a new creative outlet, encouraged innovation through the use of design software and mass collaboration, and allowed designers to reach wider as well as more niche audiences. On the flip side, designers have improved the value of information technology and the internet by improving the aesthetics and usability of programs and websites. The combined efforts of these two industries have created world changing websites, such as TED.

Here are a number of other examples where collaboration between different fields of activity have produced impressive results:

  1. the formerly non-existent web-search industry and the traditional system of academic citation have combined to create Google;
  2. electronics and automotive industries have combined to make carbon neutral transportation a possibility;
  3. aviation and computing have combined to produce unmanned aircraft; and
  4. biology and robotics have combined to perfect walking robots.

Implications of Business Mutualism

One of the key implications of Business Mutualism is that we should look to other industries and fields of activity for inspiration. If we want to create market leading companies, we need to constantly innovate and search for alternatives. Keeping our eyes open to the possibilities presented by Business Mutualism is likely to help us sustain a competitive advantage over our rivals.

There are many good ideas already in existence. The question is, how can we combine these ideas with our current expertise to create something revolutionary? How can we change the world?

Building flexibility into business planning

ONE of the take away lessons from the CFA curriculum is that the conventional method of valuing an investment is to determine the present value of expected future cashflows.  One way of doing this would be to use the constant growth dividend discount model, which estimates the value of a stock by assuming that dividends grow at a constant rate … forever.  If the present value of expected cash inflows exceeds the cost of the investment, then we should invest.

I hope this model of investment valuation concerns you. It certainly concerns me. It basically tells us that we should make an investment decision based on the most likely expected future.

If we are happy to agree that (1) it is not possible to predict the future and (2) past performance does not guarantee future performance, then this colour by numbers method of investment valuation leaves much to be desired.

The businesses that will prosper in the Global Financial Crisis are the ones that have flexible business plans. These are the businesses that looked into the future and saw uncertainty. These businesses understood that the state of the world in ten or even one years time is not only uncertain, but unknowable, and planned accordingly.

One company that comes to mind is Microsoft, which has a cash stockpile of some US$25 billion.  In the past, Microsoft has received considerable criticism for failing to either invest its vast cash reserves, or distribute them to shareholders.  Microsoft’s “conservative” approach now puts it in a strong position to acquire competitors who “strategically invested” their cash reserves in more prosperous times.

To quote the McKinsey Quarterly:

Corporate leaders might consider [using] robust business models incorporating some slack and flexibility instead of the models most common today, which aim to optimise value in the most likely future scenario and thus leave companies exposed when conditions change dramatically.

CFA Level 1 Exam 2009 – post audit

An exam day overview

I did the CFA Level 1 Exam yesterday. If you haven’t heard of the CFA Exam before, see the article “CFA Exam – What is it? Why do it? How to prepare.”

It is definitely one of the most exhausting tests I have undertaken, a gruelling six hour 240 question multiple choice exam. The CFA Institute recommends 250 hours of study for the test, and I only managed to notch up about 120 hours at best. Needless to say, I found it to be quite a tough exam.

If the pass mark for the exam were a simple 50%, I would be confident about passing. Each multiple choice question had three possible answers, so the expected result from blind guessing is a healthy 33%. A bit of common sense, some clever educated guessing, and my background in economics and econometrics would probably be enough to push me above the 50% mark.

Unfortunately, the pass mark for the exam is somewhere around 70%. So, success is by no means assured.

The examination supervisors are called “proctors” and, as I sat down in the exam hall, the head proctor’s voice boomed over the audio system, “All electronic devices, including mobile phones, must be switched off and surrendered. We have systems in place to detect the use of any electronic device within the examination hall. If a mobile phone is discovered in your possession during the timed portion of the examination, it will be confiscated and a written report will be submitted to the CFA Institute”.  Wow, the power had really gone to his head. We were under the control of a 60-something year old power hungry proctor.

As it turned out, the Salvation Army were holding their National Congress right next to the examination hall . Trumpets, trumbones, drumming, and a chorus of voices filled the exam hall for the entire first half of the exam. Did God not know I was trying to concentrate? I can only hope that this highly inopportune spiritual distraction was a positive omen.

Thirty minutes into the test, the choir continued to sing, and I read my first economics question: “If the supply of money decreases which of the following is least likely to result in an increase to  …” Decrease, least likely, increase … sorry?

Some kind of miracle may be required.