assessing risk|realizing opportunities

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.

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Risk: Group Think, sustainable business model, value creation

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Regulate or Not To Regulate: Is That a Question?

Last year during the height of the banking crisis I remember Larry Kudlow stating that the US market has a choice. It could pursue the EU model of high regulated markets producing low consistent returns or the American model of less regulation and volatile cycles of high risk and potentially higher returns. If the sole focus of government was the peace of mind and well being of investors Mr. Kudlow’s observation would be valid. Government however must consider a larger community of stakeholders in its scope of concern. Regulatory oversight, the harmony of capital and labor and the incubation of an economic culture that is favorable to and supportive of SMEs are the critical questions confronting all governments particularly those in developed economies.

The EU’s social democratic economic models embody the best and worst aspects of these issues. The social democratic state attempt to combine entrepreneurial impulses of capitalism with the management and administration of social welfare for all its citizens. Democratically “elected administrators” use the apparatus of the state to facilitate and manage the competing interests of capital and labor, free markets and regulation while seeking to balance an entrepreneurship friendly culture with long term sustainability.

Yesterday a toxic tsunami of aluminum sludge coated 16 square miles of pristine Hungarian countryside. It is a telling example of a severe risk event that confronts modern life. A lassiaz-faire approach to the event is not viable and offers no solace to those harmed by this assault.  Communities cannot be asked to suffer a market response that promises to correct the problem of the next instance of this event.  The construction of better berms and the implementation redundant protection devises to safeguard against this risk  for the future is little compensation to those who were killed, injured and lost property or livelihoods as a result of MAL Zrt poor risk management practices.

Better to suffer a regulatory initiative that is based on an understanding of an economic ecosystem as complex and inhabited by competing interests of diverse stakeholders.  The ecosystem including the shareholders of MAL Zrt, residents of the surrounding communities, plant workers (also community residents), small businesses (SME) and down stream farmers making a living on arable land and access to clean water all have a stake,  albeit competing,  in the safe operation of the plant. The possibility that the toxic sludge may find its way into the Danube poses a threat to the water supply of other eastern European nations.  This elevates this catastrophic event to other EU jurisdictions. The inter-dependencies and interconnectedness of the pan-regional and larger global economy requires vigorous regulatory safeguards, mitigation initiatives and enforcement response.

The true cost of this event is potentially staggering. It supersedes the narrow interest and economic value of shareholders rights and capital invested in MAL Zrt.  Bad economic behavior exemplified by BP’s Horizon Deepwater failure to install redundant protective devises to keep production costs to a minimum, ended up costing BP shareholders and Gulf Coast stakeholders dearly.

State intervention in markets and the reemergence of managed economies is a reality of the global economy. The “managed economy” of the Peoples Republic of China places western style “free market” economies at a disadvantage. The managers of the PRC efficiently deploy and manage capital, effect trade and market protections and scrupulously manage currency valuation. It has created enormous social wealth for China and has contributed to its rapid rise as a preeminent world power.  China’s rise requires better coordination of private capital and government to marshal a competitive market response to the challenges posed by managed economies to free and open markets of western democracies. The massive pools of capital deployed by sovereign wealth funds of oil producing regencies and the growing insurgency and power of underground economic activity also pose significant challenges to the viability of unregulated markets.

America’s free market model that eschewed regulation since the 1980’s evolved into a mercantile economy with a weakened economic base. The outsourcing of manufacturing infrastructure loosened free market impulses that left in its place a debtor nation whose warped economy depended on housing/commercial real estate construction (collateral creation/securitization), credit marketing, retailing and a service sector that was designed to support the new economic paradigm. It is a model that has proven itself to be wasteful, costly and unsustainable.

Deregulation has led to the dislocation of the capital markets from the real economy. It has contributed to the massive disparities in social wealth and a crumbling infrastructure.  Milton Friedman’s mistaken belief that free market impulses would preserve infrastructure investment has been proven incorrect. Ironically this has added to the government’s burden to provide social assistance to segments of the population disenfranchised from economic participation. Some believe that the basis for the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are economic stimulus programs designed to keep the economy going due to the vacuum created by the loss of manufacturing.

China’s example nor the resurrection of the soviet socialist model is not a desirable alternative for western democratic capitalist societies. Centralized control and state economic planning is rife with inefficiencies. State run economies threatens liberty, stifles innovation and encumbers economic dynamism. The virtues of capitalism (innovation, dynamism, liberty) needs to be encouraged and blended into the new economic reality of a highly dependent and interconnected world that requires cooperation, coexistence, sustainability, fair asset valuation, and the equitable sharing of resource and responsibility. SME’s are at the forefront of innovation, value creation and dynamism and will play a leading role in the creation of new social-political values as sources of sustainable growth and wealth in the emerging economic paradigm.

You Tube Music Video: Chevy Chase and Mike Myers: I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover

Risk: regulatory, capitalism, sustainability

October 6, 2010 Posted by | capitalism, compliance, economics, infrastructure, labor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments