Saving the Middle Class: Josh Brown on Corporate Stupidity

As anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows, I'm beyond being a fan of Josh Brown and his blog, The Reformed Broker.

I think he's a hero - particularly because the truths he's telling are about his own industry: Financial Services. Most important of all, he gives those of us not in the industry the information we need to make smart decisions, see charlatans for what they are and the knowledge of when to run like the wind.

Well, he did it again over the weekend with his piece: "Forget Fairness, Let's Talk About Stupidity."

Only this time, he takes on what the multi-year corporate decision to hold down wages really means. Not just the dismantling of the middle class - although that's definitely happening. It's that the companies are giving themselves a slow death by not ensuring that employees have enough money to buy the products and services the companies, themselves, are providing.

Short-sighted idiots.

Here's a taste:
The corporations are every bit as vulnerable to the disappearance of the middle class as the middle class is itself. 
They've managed around this issue thus far with an increasing emphasis on exports (now responsible for half of the S&P 500's sales and profits) as well as systemic and legally-sanctioned overseas tax evasion. Consider that Exxon Mobil made $19 billion in profits in 2009 and paid zero Federal income tax (you want to laugh, they actually got a rebate of $256 million). GE earned $14 billion in 2010 and also paid zero in Federal income tax. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have each set up offshore subsidiaries which they use as payment conduits so as to keep their profits shielded from the IRS. 
But offshoring of profits and the export of goods and services won't sustain these corporations forever. At a certain point, native companies within the developing world will nudge our adventuring multinationals aside (China's already building its own version of Wall Street).  And when that happens, Corporate America is going to turn around and be horrified by the devastation in its own backyard. 
"Where did all our customers go?" 
Well, you enormous fucking idiots, you fired all your customers. You've spent the last decade or so suppressing wage growth in the name of "creating shareholder value" and now even your shareholder base is disappearing. 
You allowed wages to stagnate for a decade and made every decision you could in the service of nudging the quarterly profit higher, thinking less of the yearly profit and virtually nothing of the long-term viability of your business.
Read the full post here. It's more than worth it.

Thanks, Josh.

And Now for the Hedge Funds: More on Your Financial Strategy

In my post a few days ago about VCs versus Private Equity, I talked about what your strategy should be as you look for money based on the agenda that each investment type has to offer.

In very short, VCs are in with you for the longer term as you build your enterprise.  PEs are looking for the money they can make from your organization on a much faster flip.

It's not that one is good and the other bad.  It's that you go to them - or they look with interest at you - based on what they are trying to achieve for their investors.

Now enter the Hedge Funds.  In an interesting - and somewhat disturbing - article in the New York Times today, it turns out that Hedge Funds are starting to take the place of banks in lending money to mid-sized businesses.

After all, the banks aren't lending these companies the money - so someone has to.  And Hedge Funds are.  Even some of the PEs are getting into the act.

That's the good part.

The not so good part is that the Hedge Funds are charging comparatively usurious interest rates (12.5%) and bring the same orientation to your organization's future as a PE fund.

There's even concern that the Hedge Funds - a pretty much non-regulated player in the financial arena - may cause the next economic meltdown as they grow their (and your) debt to astronomical heights.

So, as you look at what you need, put the Hedge Funds into your thinking - but, as always, ask yourself:

How much does this money really cost?


VCs, PE and the Cash Infusion Question (OA)
Bank Said No? Hedge Funds Will Fill a Void in Lending (NYT)

Why @thereformedbroker Never Sucks

Okay, so you may want to officially refer to this post as a Resource Alert - and it is - but it's more than that.  It's damned near a paean of praise - and about an investment advisor, for God's sake.

You may also wonder why I:

  • have such a different - shall we say snarky (at least for me) - style in this piece and/or
  • used such a strange title for this post.
Blame it on Josh Brown.  What can I say?  He brings out the snark in me...and I always enjoy it.

Mr. Brown (you see how I'm being polite again?) is an investment advisor who blogs - constantly - and never pulls his punches.  That being said, I don't always agree with his assessments - but I'm always challenged and informed by his writing.

Take his piece "June Swoon", for example, in which he refers to June being a "sucky month for stocks most of the time."  (You see?  My post title is an homage!)

On the face of it, that's a nice piece of information but wouldn't normally be given more than a passing mention.  Brown, on the other hand, takes an analytical, contextual look at it and, in so doing, provides you with better thinking material as you look at decisions you need to make.

His writing is extremely clear (even when he talks "gangsta"), in immediate and historical context, concise and always with workable information that assists in expanding his readers' thinking.  For that he's always great.

He's honest and courageous in his writing, too.  And while his blog is not designed to give specific investment advice, whether you're looking at your own portfolio or you want to have a better sense of where industries are going worldwide, he's your guy.

On the other hand (because this isn't a love fest and I have a need to take this one shot at him), in a recent post about Amazon's decision to establish a Kindle-based imprint publishing romance novels, he refers to the readership as "nitwits" before changing that reference to "buyers." 

Clearly, he hasn't read the domestic and international readership surveys that the competing publishing houses (which are not happy with Amazon's decision) have been taking for decades.  Had he, he would have known that those 'nitwits' are a highly educated, very accomplished population of men and women who read those babies.

(Don't get me going on this one - because I'll win.  I researched the business model when I was in graduate school and have kept up with the industry since then.)

Other than that, though, the aspect of the topic that he addresses (i.e., the distributor becoming a direct competitor of the content producer) was on target and does raise issues - in publishing and otherwise - regarding intermediation and disintermediation across industries.

It's not easy when your supply chain 'partner' suddenly becomes your worst nightmare come to life - and that's a future that Amazon's move brings to the present.

Josh is a really smart man and a really talented writer.  You want to follow him.  He's well worth your time.


VCs, PE and the Cash Infusion Question

I take a lot of meetings.

Some of them, of course, are with my clients.  Others are for business development.

And then there are those meetings that look like being for one purpose and end up for another altogether.

I had one of those last week.  It was with a management consultant who works with Private Equity (PE) firms.

Being a Silicon Valley sort of person, I'm far more oriented toward the Venture Capital world.  That's for a lot of reasons:

  • First, of course, it's because it's the venture guys who have made the Valley possible all these years.  They deserve a world of credit for that.
  • Second, it's because I like their purpose.  They see something out there - in most cases something that doesn't yet quite exist but shows all the potential in the world - and they invest in it.  They invest in the future not only of start-ups but also of companies that need help in later stages to scale and fulfill their potential.
  • The third reason is because, if you know anything at all about how VCs work, they invest as much in the people who bring them the opportunity as they do the opportunity itself.  You do a pitch to a VC and, as well as having a viable, preferably already revenue-generating, product or service and you'd better also have a really strong management team.  If you don't, they'll find someone else with a similar product but better chances of bringing the business to fruition.

And that's why, for a lot of reasons, taking the meeting with a person who lives in the PE world was, I knew, going to be a fascination - no matter the outcome.

She's seriously smart.  Talented, too.  She knows how to create success for her clients - and that's a good thing.

But the clients are the PE firms - not the companies they have bought.  Which makes all the difference in the world.

In her world, EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) isn't just a key indicator - it's practically the only indicator.  And in the PE world, that makes sense.  Because the value of the company they bought is wholly dependent upon how much they can get for it when they sell it - preferably the sooner the better.

Because their goal is to sell.  So the companies need the highest levels of earnings possible.  And the faster the sale, the better.  (I know.  I'm repeating myself.  But if there's one thing you need to understand, it's that one fact.)

The whole issue of speed and investment and commitment was very much on view in Tamara Mellon's recent FT interview about the sale of her company, Jimmy Choo (of the eponymous and beautiful shoes and accessories) out of its third PE relationship to a "long term partner," Labelux.

She even went so far as to say that PE isn't a good fit with luxury because PE doesn't understand a long-term relationship.  PE isn't willing to invest the up-to-30 years that it may take to adequately build the brand.

She's right.  Because that's not the PE model.

To be fair, neither is it the model for VCs.  They want - and need - a faster turnaround.  But the thing you very often see is that the VCs involved in taking a company to success stay with that company for years to come.  On the Board and as major shareholders.

I'm not romanticizing these guys.  I promise.  But, in the world of business building, it's the VC model that wins.

Which brings us to you.

As you build your company - no matter where you are in your developmental arc - there will be times that you need a cash infusion.  It can come in the form of a straightforward loan.  Or, if you're in start-up, a VC or Angel Fund may your answer.  Or, if it makes sense and you're at that point, you may be looking at an IPO.  Or, particularly if you're further along in your development, you may want to see what the PE community has to offer.

When you do, the questions you have to ask yourself are:

  • What is my purpose in getting this money?
  • What is my commitment to this organization?
  • What am I looking for in my financial provider?  (Don't ever call them partners.  They're not.)
  • What kind of commitment do I want from them?
  • What value - beyond their money - do they bring to helping my organization succeed?
  • What are the best and worst case exit scenarios I can imagine - and which of those providers plays into each scenario?
The more you are focused on the long-term, the easier it will be to determine how best to strategize your organization's financial needs from outside sources.

Start now - whether you need the bucks or not.  Because it's always good to have a plan in place.

Especially when it comes to money.


Tamara Mellon makes new love match, predicts luxury/private equity divorce (FT)

Quality and Finance

I had a great time today talking with Jim Blasingame about quality and finance on his "Small Business Advocate" radio program.  Here, in three parts, is my interview. Happy listening!

On Quality and Strategizing Your Financial Plans

On Quality and the Rule of 97% Predictability

On Using Quality as a Competitive Discriminator