Sunday, April 28, 2013

Don't Look a $400 Billion Gift Horse in the Mouth

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…unless you live in Troy

Well into its adolescence or awkward 20-somethings, the Knowledge Economy just got its birth certificate of sorts.  To a rather fumbling thud, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) decided to include research and development into the calculation of GDP in their March 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts reported this past week.  This nearly 3% upward revision comes at a time when the economic headwinds of sequestration - notably the shrinkage of the defense sector - is placing considerable and growing drag on the economy.  If timing is everything, than the BEA's announcement is nothing.

Now to be clear, the headline value of this week's announcement is two decades late but still important.  The fact that we've failed to account for the engine of economic expansion - the genuine innovation of products and services that have marked the past expansion cycles - is moronic.  The fact that economists officially have waited until 2013 to decide that their 1805 GAAP Accounting logic derived from France has failed to describe our economic condition is an indictment on academic and professional economists and their comprehensive anticipatory ineptitude.  While they can precisely describe partial past conditions that conform to their limited assumptions with better than random accuracy, they have failed entirely in their ability to anticipate or respond to forward-looking considerations and risks.

There's no small bit of trouble with the BEA's late arrival into modernity.  Research and development is expensed under GAAP accounting into oblivion.  In taxation, the nuance of the In-Process Research and Experimentation Tax Credit (the IRS' most abused tax shelter that it is "incapable" of policing) is the subject of billions of dollars of tax fraud each year.  Politically desirable as the pork that every good Congressional representative can bring home to the district, this $76 billion dollar loop-hole doesn't support economic expansion.  Rather it shrinks legitimate tax collection and defrauds the taxpayer for the benefit of abusing corporations and their interest holders.  In banking, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is "not aware" of the use of intangibles (the by-product of research and development) as collateral despite the Federal Reserve's own 2007 report in which they estimated that there are over $3 trillion in borrower assets that are not counted in bank collateral assessments.  In short, we can have our little welcome to the Brave New World economics party but, beware.

I hate to break some news to you but I'm the Cassandra to the BEA's Trojan Horse.  And if you don't know this metaphor, go back and read the account of the fall of Troy.  Cursed by Apollo with the "gift" of prophecy, this daughter of King Priam knew that the horse left by the Greeks was the harbinger of the downfall of Troy but her warnings were unheeded.  In the U.S., we'd scarcely recognize research and development if it were a snake biting our face.  Since the 1970's we've used R&D as a mechanism to flow federal and state support to universities due to our social apathy towards funding education; we've inefficiently underwritten R&D to accommodate state-sponsored enterprise through our statutory agencies; and, we've built a highly inefficient corporate tax regime that allows venture capital to pour cash into enterprises and harvest tax losses in over 80% of the failed endeavors.  Real R&D - the stuff that actually makes the world a better place; that brings new products and services to the world - is endangered on the best of days and bordering on extinction.  Basic research - the kind that made solid rocket fuel, that suspended magnetic signals in tape, that figured out dyes on fabric, that understood the chemistry of the elements that describe our world - is barely present.  While we nuance the edges of consumer electronics to jam more video processing into smaller devices so that we can have a virtual world, the real world is more illusive today than it was 100 years ago.  
                                                                                                     
The social schemes of Natural Philosophy enabled a world of inquiry and debate.  Great societies learned how to disagree with reasoned arguments using more than 140 characters to communicate a thought.  Hash tags and contractions did not navigate the oceans or plumb the depths of space.  In our make-believe world, we pretend that Boston's carnage was a new phenomenon.  How quickly we forget Northern Ireland, Spain, and Germany!  Within my lifetime, terror hasn't emerged on the scene.  In point of fact, it is the innovation of the marketing of terror which has been refined to an art form!  London wasn't safer because of police action.  London became safer because the citizens of London were unwilling to be cowed by terror and reopened pubs and restaurants in the face of carnage.  New York didn't become safer because of end of violence - it became safer by a public that would not relent to the dereliction of the city in the 70s and 80s.  See, even when it comes to social innovation, we're innovating less today than just 30 years ago.  And when it comes to that $400 billion - it gets really messy.

Our R&D and "innovation" in the majority are proxies for legal costs and capital markets inefficiencies.  When Apple and Google buy "innovation" from Nortel or Motorola, they're not making new products.  They're making sure that extortionists cannot hold them hostage in patent lawsuits.  When a government contractor selling satellites misrepresents their ownership of technology and falsifies an indemnity for this lie, it is the government and the taxpayer that loses.  Our GDP, buoyed by innovation risk management does not grow our economy - it memorializes our demise.
 
Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
Virgil's Aeneid, Book II.

We the People should count innovation and celebrate the inquiry into the unknown, undeciphered, and forgotten.  We should not mislabel our litigious and capital inefficiencies as innovation.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pulling the Plug

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2013 Spring Meeting wrapped up this weekend with some staggering insights into just how devoid of creativity the world's economic and defacto thought leadership has remained.  

Financial Committee Chair, Singapore's Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, summarized the 'growth and jobs' agenda with the following statement:  "There was also a strong and common recognition that achieving growth and jobs cannot rest on one policy alone. There is no single bullet that will get us to normal growth and some normality with regard to jobs."  IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde clarified the Chair's statement with the hard-hitting: "Every policymaker is keen to develop jobs and to respond to the demands of the young population in particular;" adding that, "Anything that works to create jobs is on the table."

In the coming months, the IMF's focus will look to "Advanced Economies" to provide "accommodative monetary policy" to strengthen the financial sector - particularly bank balance sheets.  "Emerging Markets and Developing Countries" will need to be "recalibrated and build buffers and guard against financial vulnerability."  "Low Income Countries" will need to manage their "robust growth".  Hold on one second!  The world's elite financial minds just wanted to make sure that the "Low Income Countries" manage "robust growth." 

Let's take a moment and reflect on a few of the assumptions underpinning the august IMF.  From 1944 until the U.S. gold default that collapsed the fixed exchange rate manipulation authorized in the Bretton Woods Agreements (carefully branded to avoid any designation of the dollar as unstable or the U.S. as a credit risk), the 1970's saw IMF intervention on two primary fronts.  On the first, the maintenance of the illusion of the dollar's critical role in denominating international trade - a concession of a defeated Continental Europe and Imperial Japan.  Second, the preservation of the one exchange that the dollar ruled:  the trade of oil.  Some of us can recall that neither of these worked too well:  massive international 'developing debt' collapses attended by despotic puppet government abuses rife with human rights carnage set up and sponsored by the "Advanced" lot.  Who can forget the heady days of oil crises checkering the 1970s? 

So here's a question.  Precisely what period of time do any of the Finance Ministers in 188 member countries point to as the standard for "recovery", "resilience" or economic "health"?  If the IMF was the General Manager of a Football Club, they'd be hauled off the pitch and fired.  If the owners (aka the "Advanced Countries") of the IMF were owners of a Football Club, the franchise would be sold.  Ironically, the folks who love football and would love to buy the franchise are the very economies that are those pesky "robust growth" ones! 

As the Chairman of a company that is in a growth transition, I've been fortunate to meet with countless professionals across the capital markets.  With few exceptions, I am perplexed to see the cognitive sclerosis evidenced by individuals who were credentialed during this past economic cycle.  The irrational self-entitlement afforded to modest performance - the error of thinking that presiding over market inertia is equivalent to savvy leadership and strategic management - is epidemic.  I've seen well meaning people who think that their individual contribution to a venture involving hundreds is worth 10-50% of the resulting productive enterprise!  Seriously?  The malignant irrationality attending something as modest as the business I steward is merely the microcosm of the carelessness evidenced in the IMF's Spring fling.

Being in the room when a deal was negotiated does not make you competent to find, design and execute the deal on your own.  Being in graduate school in business or economics during the Clinton Administration does not mean that you understand anything about an economy or how it works.  God forbid, being an economist within the marketing arm of a country desperately trying to preserve an illusion of hegemony may get you VIP access to a few clubs on the Continent but it in no way qualifies you to understand youth, productive engagement, or system level size optimization.  If it did, you wouldn't hear the MIT, Chicago, and Harvard monotony of "jobs" and "growth" as the mantra for the world.

Many of the countries that are experiencing economic engagement and expansion at present have made considerable strides in expanding education; limiting near-slave labor conditions which supported G-20 profitability conveniently out of the eye-sight of an ignorant consuming public; and, coming up with post-colonial models for domestic natural resource stewardship.  Ironically these things don't stabilize bank balance sheets in the near term but they sure reduce long term political risk which… well… would stabilize balance sheets! 

On October 18, 2008, I posted by first Inverted Alchemy entry:  "Bailout Solutions Use the Wrong Economic Model".  On January 30, 2009 "The Defibrillator is on the WRONG patient" was another observation that the economists charged with 'fixing' the symptoms that surfaced in 2008 were evidencing their incompetence by applying the wrong intervention on the wrong anatomy.  This week's IMF mania not only reinforces these half decade old observations but suggests a more critical intervention.

The "Advanced Economies" (formerly known as militant interventionalists, colonialists, imperialists, and otherwise entitled) have been brain dead for a long time.  Nothing wrong with the rest of the organism called the global community - just a brain that barely responds to reflexes and surely evidences no higher function or creativity.  Like the entitled executives who ran the businesses that were the machine sustaining the illusion of the past 25 years who think they are equity holders of a future that they did nothing to steward into being, the IMF can be an organ donor.  Take the pieces that work and use them with gratitude to build an institution that addresses: wealth distribution; productive engagement; and the harnessing of the ingenuity of youth to rehabilitate that which has atrophied and synthesize what needs to be new.  Take out the tube!  Unplug the ventilator!  Let nature take its course.  Let's run into tomorrow without entitlement but with commitment to be a productive svelte athlete.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

By Any Other Name

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'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Act II, Scene II - Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

We are crossing that fateful anniversary of Edward Smith's command in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.  One hundred and one years ago at this moment, all of the necessary objects in motion were in motion to conspire to bring about maritime's most celebrated disaster.  Smith, known both as a "safe" and "the Millionaires'" captain was, by the turn of the last century one of the most renown captains sailing the upper class from Liverpool to destinations far flung across the Atlantic.  Having credentialed himself as the 'safe' choice for the aristocratic class of intrepid seafarers who wanted crystal and chandeliers rather than timber and grog, he sailed right past his little 1911 collision with the HMS Hawke in which he sheered the bow off of a warship.  While he damaged the RMS Olympic in the collision and nearly sunk the White Star Line financially, his reputation for safety among the monied elite put him on the collision course with history 101 year nights ago. 

'Safe'?

Gold is the 'safe' investment in economic turbulence.  Treasuries are the 'safe' haven in the current cycle.  Why is it that after millenia of experience, the havens where the wealthy coalesce for 'safety' happen to be the same places where contagion and destruction are most cataclysmic?  With quantitative easing manipulating the price and supply of 'safe' assets and creating an El Niño superstorm-in-waiting, Bloomberg went as far as to suggest that we're seeing a "safety bubble" forming.  Once again blurring the ontology of "safety" and "risk", the market continues to see massive asset relocation into assets that are shrouded in near perfect market ignorance, laden with sovereign manipulation experience, and promoted as 'safe' and 'low risk'.  

What would happen if we called 'safety' what it actually is?  The 'safety' that the market seeks is a preservation of money so that an isolated individual can horde resources in the present to manage expectations about a future in which money will have equivalent utility.  Is it the individuated, miserly, hording impulse that seeks insure that self-interest will be financed at some point in time when distress happens?  'Safe' investments celebrate past performance rather than investing capital in productive engagement.  They represent capital holders disengaging from a expansive future; from geographies of heterogeneity; from financial products that invite broader participation and activism.  When will we realize that safety may actually attend those who build networks of shared trust and success in which mutual aligned interests are celebrated in success and resilient in times of want?  

What would happen if we actually took a step back and measured risk?  I have spent the past decade working with private wealth managers, families, and institutional investors.  To date, I've yet to meet a single one who can actually explain what they mean by risk with a definition that does not include: a) consensus beliefs unsubstantiated by data; and, b) complete lack of understanding regarding the conditions in which they could preemptively discern that the 'risk' would change.  In other words, 'risk' in the market is a barrier to inquiry - ignorance arbitrage as I've called it - rather than a quantifiable unit of expected loss.

If we called safe, low risk investments by their other name - reclusive miserly ignorance arbitrage - we'd celebrate it a lot less.  We'd also spend more time informing ourselves about the investments we make and the degree to which they build networks of resilience around our present engagement and future sustainability.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Greedy for the Sun

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April 1 was no joking matter for me this year.  At 12:01 AM I had the opportunity to put a real price tag on my value for stewardship - it's greater than $50 million dollars.  In the monotony of unconsidered capitalism, I was asked to put in jeopardy the interests of investors in one of my enterprises for great personal advantage and benefit.  It would have been 'good' for my interests as I would have been in more direct line to greater monetary benefit, more influence, and less headaches from the nuisance of governance that attends a world including many inconsiderate, passive shareholders.  While some of you were reading my fresh blog post in the Pacific, I was pressing 'send' on an e-mail that said "No" to an offer of a lifetime.

"And so in war; if the campaign is in the summer the general must show himself greedy for his share of the sun and the heat, and in winter for the cold and the frost, and in all labours for toil and fatigue… the princely leader and the private soldier may be alike in body, but their sufferings are not the same: the pains of the leader are always lightened by the glory that is his and by the very consciousness that all his acts are done in the public eye."

When I said "No" to a massive capital partnership, I was not diminishing the value of provisions for our enterprise.  In fact, I neither rejected the money nor the party offering to fund; rather, I was rejecting the form in which it was offered.  To achieve what we seek to manifest, the utility of capital is a critical component of our endeavor.  Without it, the market perceives risk where little actually exists.  But the idea of dishonoring those who have provisioned our enterprise to this point for the excessive benefit of the latest to arrive on the scene is beyond the pale.  And, quite frankly, illogical.

Imagine a world in which you are to be trusted with the resources of others.  You will be held to public and private scrutiny - success or failure.  You will be asked to apply yourself each day to the productive deployment of resources for greater returns.  The only catch is to start out, you must disavow pledges - actual and implied - that you've made to those who, with similar expectations, merely had the curse of preceding the present beneficiaries.  Gregory Bateson sought to disentangle this paradox in his effort to explain the roots of schizophrenic pathologies in what he referred to as the "double-bind".  

"I want you to be loyal," pleads the new investor, "so I want you to abandon the returns expected by all those who came before."

"But if I'm prepared to be disloyal to those who came before, how can you expect my loyalty to persist for you?"

"What I will do is place golden handcuffs on you so that you are penalized for any act of future disloyalty," the new investor stipulates.

"Than you don't seek my loyalty - you seek my indenture for which one day I will loathe my condition and you."

What on earth could be salutary in this social dynamic?  I was advised that the answer is the non-answer: "That's just how the system works."

Well, on April 1, 2013, that system stopped working, at least for one instance.  I said, "No." 

"Now some of his scholars showed such excellent aptitudes for deception and overreaching, and perhaps no lack of taste for common money-making, that they did not even spare their friends, but used their arts on them.  And so an unwritten law was framed by which we still abide, bidding us teach our children as we teach our servants, simply and solely not to lie, and not to cheat, and not to covet, and if they did otherwise to punish them, hoping to make them humane and law-abiding citizens. But when they came to manhood…, the risk was over, and it would be time to teach them what is lawful against our enemies."

Cultivate values of accountability and stewardship, loyalty and integrity through life but to succeed, be prepared to apply them selectively!  Is it any wonder that we see our system in the throes of collapse with integrity failings at both great and small?  Is it any wonder that remarkable abuses of law and public trust go unprosecuted when those who take oaths to uphold and defend are blissfully suckling at the tit of the treacherous?  

"Many have won the very wealth they prayed for and through it have found destruction."

There are many who seek some karmic or eschatological resolution for this consensus delusion of selective accountable stewardship.  For them, I am afraid that you'll find ample evidence of perpetrators of ill intent who were enriched by their treachery and who die fully sated in the life that they led.  Equally, paupers' graves are filled with principled folk who took the road of morality and died ignominiously.  The ends-and-means justification question is a naïve catechism.  It neither informs critical moral development nor does it resolve the shrouded reality.  I cannot tell you that the decision I made on April Fools Day was astute or absurd. 

Here's what I can tell you.  For the past six days, my life has been surrounded with dozens of remarkable people - some in disbelief - who have seen a decision taken on principle and have rallied to the notion that there is path that does not require acquiescence.  Exposed at the vanguard, I have been surrounded by allies and together we press on.  Bring on the sun, the heat, the cold, the frost because our toil has been lightened!

(All quotes in italics are from Xenophon's Cyropaedia)