Archive for the ‘Companies’ Category

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There is a university, its location is not well known, maybe you travel there from platform nine and three quarters at King Cross, but it is called the School of Technology Phobia.   While we don’t know the location, it does seem likely that the University of Luddites is nearby. Graduates from the former of these institutions have been busy during the last few days, pouring their scholarly ideas across the ether. As a result, shares in Apple look like they are on helter-skelter, hurtling towards the earth.

That may be little unkind. That is to say unkind on Apple. It remains the world’s largest company and its shares did not so much as tumble, as reverse some of the stellar gains seen in recent months. But for the ladies and gentlemen whose cynicism led to the shares falls, the words are not all unkind at all.

Shares in Apple fell, and they fell quite sharply this week, as the company revealed truly stunning results. Revenue was up 112 per cent, sales into China doubled.  If the Apple share price falls after results like that, one wonders what might happen if it had an normal set of results

Apple’s problem is that it is the world’s biggest company by market cap. When you are that big it is hard to grow. Apple needs products that command high retail prices and it needs to sell them in droves. That’s why some think it will be turning to cars next, or even into the world of energy generation and storage.  The iPhone did alright in Apple’s latest quarter, in fact sales were up 35 per cent. According to the school of thought most people sign-up to, a 35 per cent rise in sales of any product is considered pretty exceptional. It is just that when it comes to Apple, it seems many analysts and investors went to a different school, the one mentioned above.

One day, but we have no idea when, smart phones will stop selling. Maybe it will occur when Moore’s Law runs out of puff, maybe it will occur when smart phones are replaced by chips that sit inside our heads. So while Apple enjoyed revenue topping £13.2 billion in its latest quarter, and its valuation to projected earnings is nothing alarming, cynics fret that one day it will run out of road.  Contrast that with Exxon Mobil, Apple’s main rival for the tile world’s largest company, it specialises in a product that the world will always want, namely oil, or so goes the argument.

As it happens, with technology advances in renewables, energy storage and synthetic oil there is no guarantee the world will always want Exxon Mobil’s core product. Apple, however, has another advantage. To explain why we need to look at psychology.

When it comes to paying for stuff, our purchases are likely to be greater if there is distance.  It also helps if things are easier.

If you were to tuck into pizza at the local Pizza café, and you were charged by the bite, you might soon get fed up. Setting aside the inconvenience, with each bite you will be thinking about the cost. So you pick you your fork, move the pizza to your mouth, and quickly tap in your pin number authorising another 30 pence. As you munch away, you will be thinking about the cost. Dan Ariely prosed the pizza idea to explain the concept of the ‘pain of paying’.

Other research shows that people who live in apartments in New York spend more on their laundry if they pay by tokens than by coins. The same psychology explains why casinos provide customers with chips – They spend more money that way.

For similar reasons, we spend more when we use a credit card than when we use cash. The lower the ‘pain of paying’, it appears the more we pay.

Now consider Apple Pay. It will be to the ‘pain of paying’, what morphine is to a headache. Apple Pay will make money for retailers, and Apple will be paid handsomely for this by them in return.

Now consider the Apple watch. It’s odd, isn’t it? When was the last time you used a pocket watch.  Wrist watches replaced pocket watches because they were more convenient. Odd then, that critics of the Apple Watch, which is after-all— a computer to sit on your wrist, don’t get why it is had advantages over a pocket smart phone. There is another benefit. As Daniel Kahneman illustrated in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, we can be quite impulsive. If spending money involves touching our wrist, and if that money is then distanced from our bank account by Apple Pay, we are likely to spend more

It is just another reason why we need to listen to graduates from the schools of technology not, technology phobia.

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If you are really nerdy, not unlike the author of this article, you may never have recovered from the death of Blake. He was the eponymous hero of the TV series ‘Blake’s Seven’, who was killed off halfway through the series, only to apparently reappear in the last episode, but this time as villain, who killed all the other main characters. So what has that got to do with the price of bread? Well, it turns out that Microsoft – that’s Microsoft a company better known for a product you may have heard of called Windows – is re-making Blake’s seven for Xbox Live service. It’s a part of a – sorry to use an overused word – revolution in the world of content. It is one that will affect us just as much as a sharp change in the price of bread.

Microsoft is not alone. Netflix has had a go at another old BBC series, ‘The House of Cards’, and it has been praised to the hills too. To misquote the rather nauseating fictitious politician Francis Urquhart, played by Ian Richardson in the original series: “You might say it is better than the original, I cannot possible confirm that.”

Amazon is making a TV series called ‘Alpha House’. They are at it because these companies realise something crucial: content really is king. They need content to promote their distribution channel.

Not all are going for unique content. Vodafone is licensing BSkyB sports content to appear on its 4G network. BT, as you will surely know, is taking on BSKYB in its own back yard. Virgin is in turn licensing content from BT.

But are the companies with real value the ones that create content, and why does their content have to be sold on an exclusive basis? So HBO or the BBC are examples of content producers – although in the case of HBO it has its own premium network, and in the case of BBC asking whether it is a distributor of content or a producer of content is akin to asking which was first: the chicken or the egg. But content producers also include producers of sports, football clubs, and cricket clubs and, well you can continue the list.

And as mobile internet evolves from 3G to 4G to 5G, we will all have access to the means of distribution. Do we need the distributors, or can we go direct to the content producers?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Perspective makes all the difference. On this side of the pond, BP – along with its two US partners –made a dreadful error. In the case of BP the causes of the errors were complex. Its boss at the time was trying to change the culture, and make the company more safety aware. BP works with cutting edge technology, drilling for oil in the deep places of this planet. It possesses skills at searching for and releasing oil lying beneath the oceans which are second to none, but inevitably, when you push technology to its limit, you occasionally get it wrong. With the Macondo oil platform, the consequences of getting it wrong were calamitous. BP was unlucky, it could have been a rival, a US firm, for example, but alas BP was the one hit by a bolt of misfortune.

From the perspective on the other side of the Atlantic, the view is quite different. Run by a complacent Brit, “who wanted to get his life back”, BP put profits before all else. It ignored warnings. It allowed a culture to develop in which employees at the firm told their bosses what they thought they wanted to hear. BP was a company that represented all that was bad about corporate culture. Consider this anecdote to illustrate the point. Its partner, Halliburton told BP that it needed 21 metal centralising collars to stabilise cement laid down before drilling. So what did BP, with its attention forever on cost cutting, do? It laid down just six such collars.

There is no doubt that there are companies, individuals and indeed lawyers, in the region of the US affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that have tried their luck. Ads have circulated urging people to lodge claims. Stories abound of firms gaining compensation from BP for the most spurious of reasons. Perhaps their turnover fell in the year of the oil spill, but for reasons quite unrelated to BP. Perhaps their turnover fell because their finance director booked invoices that would normally have been sent in the year of the oil spill into the following year. Perhaps their turnover fell because firms changed their accountancy practice for just that one year.

Is it fair? It depends on the narrative to which you are subjected. If you believe that BP was guilty of huge arrogance, with compete disregard to human life in the build-up to the oil spill, then you might say the company hasn’t changed; that it is shamelessly trying to put the blame on innocent US victims.

If you believe BP was unlucky, and is no more guilty than its two main US partners in the oil project – Halliburton and Transocean – if you believe that its former boss Tony Hayward was singled out by the US because they just didn’t get the British tendency for understatement, then you might feel that the giant oil company has been treated shamelessly by the US system of so-called justice.

The ‘FT’ has run a number of anonymous articles fighting BP’s corner. One article headlined America’s shameful shakedown of BP and said that the “gulf settlement should be fair, not an exercise in extortion.”

Robert Kennedy Jr told the other side of the story. In a recent interview with the ‘Telegraph’ he responded to the argument that BP was being bullied by the US legal system. He said: “They are being picked on as an oil company that wrecked our Gulf and lied about it… I don’t care if it’s a British company or Exxon. I would rather sue Exxon than BP, because I think Exxon is a worse company. But Exxon didn’t do the Gulf spill.” He said damages should be sufficiently punitive that “it gives an incentive to their industry to spend as much money on protecting the safety of the public and the environment as they do on their tax lawyers, who are trying to reduce their tax liabilities.” Now take legal fees. BP forked out no less than $1.5 billion in payments to law firms acting for apparent victims of the oil spill in May and June alone. BP called these charges “perverse and outrageous.”

What it has managed to do is get the US legal system to investigate and former judge and – more to the point – former director of the FBI Louis Freeh is on the case. The Feds, as it were, are trying to see whether BP has a right to cry foul.

Yet federal judge Carl Barbier doesn’t seem impressed with BP’s arguments. The oil company has been accusing the US claims administrator Patrick Juneau and his office of acting unfairly. But Judge Barbier accused BP Boss Bob Dudley of “going beyond the line”, and of making “unfair, inappropriate, personal attacks” on Mr Juneau.

It does seem to depend on the narrative to which you were subjected in the first place.

Supposing, however, the narrative is retrospectively changed. It turns out that had BP followed Halliburton’s advice and employed 21 metal centralising collars, instead of six, it would have made no difference. Soon after the oil spill, Halliburton ran two simulations of what would have happened in the event that BP had heeded its advice, and the simulations showed that the end result would have pretty much been the same. So what did Halliburton do? It asked the people who ran the simulations to destroy them.

Halliburton has been fined $200,000 for its wrong doing, while BP has forked out around $40 billion. Some say there is a disconnection there.

But then that is the snag with narratives. When pieces of the narrative are changed at a later date, the overall initial impression is unaltered. The narrative changes us, and retrospective changes to the narrative don’t reverse the original effect it had on us. If we were to find out years after we first heard the story that that actually Cinderella was a manipulative little so and so, we would probably still think she had an evil step mother and sisters. Not that BP is Cinderella, but there is someone who is as white as the hero from the best child’s story: Dick Cheney, former US Vice President, no less.

Of course Halliburton is essentially honourable; its former boss went on to become US Vice President.

But if your narrative of US history when Cheney was Vice President is a tad cynical, and you view him as something of a war monger, who made Attila the Hun seem like a socialist, then no doubt you will see this as yet more evidence that BP has been screwed by the US legal system, while Halliburton with its links to the very top of the US government, has got away with the tiniest of fines.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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In the UK there is something confusing going on. They call it the productivity puzzle. Why is it that during the worst downturn ever suffered by the UK – at least it’s the worst since the beginning of the last century which is how far back the data goes – employment has kept growing to the extent that this year it passed an all-time high? Data provides a hard answer: productivity has been falling. But what the data does not do is provide the reason why.

Maybe the reason can be provided by the existence of Zombie companies. Once again, hard data comes to our aid – they really do appear to exist.

So interest rates were slashed to record lows, and then just to be sure they were slashed some more. That was the story of the great downturn: record low rates. If things had been different, if central banks have been more circumspect, had fretted about inflation, and moral hazard, then the great recession of 2008/09, and the downturn that began in 2008 would have been far far worse.

Company liquidations and indeed individual insolvency levels would have soared. House prices might have crashed. Unemployment would have risen to horrendous levels, and youth unemployment would have topped 50 per cent in some regions. In fact if the Bank of England and the Fed had adopted that policy, the UK and the US would have ended up looking a lot like the Eurozone.

Fortunately, in the democratic countries of the UK and the US the electorate would have never have tolerated such a state of affairs. It appears that the electorate in certain Eurozone countries was powerless to act; their cross on the electoral ballot had as much meaning as an Egyptian voting for the Muslim Brotherhood.

But just because record low rates stopped the UK from suffering an even worse downturn, it does not mean that the policy hasn’t come with disadvantages.

A year or so ago, the then FSA issued data showing that between 5 and 8 per cent of mortgages could be subject to forbearance. At that time, Dr Angus Armstrong at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said: “This has a familiar ring of the zombie firms in Japan which were insolvent but the banks would not close to avoid crystallising a loss.”

But what about the corporate world? We keep hearing about zombie companies, but are they for real?

So here is the data:

First off here is the chart that shows something is wrong:

And now here is the chart that shows why zombie companies may provide a partial explanation.

The Bank of England put it this way: “Liquidations have risen only modestly since the financial crisis, even though data from companies’ accounts suggest that the proportion of companies making a loss is higher than in the early 1990s. Insolvency professionals suggest that more businesses have been able to survive the 2008/09 recession because of the low level of Bank Rate, coupled with increased forbearance. That includes forbearance by banks on existing loans, by HMRC on outstanding tax payments, and by other companies on late payments.

Forbearance and low interest rates will allow some viable businesses to remain in operation through a temporary period of weak demand. But in other cases, where businesses will find it hard to compete in their markets when demand recovers, forbearance acts as an impediment to the efficient reallocation of capital and labour, reducing underlying productivity growth. Similarly, it may have dampened the incentives to carry out the restructuring needed by some companies in order to grow strongly.”

But in the US, where the central bank has been just as proactive as the Bank of England in promoting low interest rates, things have been different.

As far as households are concerned, there is a key difference in the way in which the mortgage market operates. In the UK if you find yourself with negative equity, having your home repossessed does not help because it is still your responsibility to pay the shortfall. In the US, it is the bank’s responsibility. This has led to a more ruthless approach to mortgage repossessions in the US, but at least this is kinder on those with negative equity and who cannot meet commitments, and it is has led to fewer so-called zombie households.

As for companies and entrepreneurs, in the US the same stigma does not apply to bankruptcy as there is in the UK. Indeed for US entrepreneurs, it sometimes feels as if facing bankruptcy is a sort of rite of passage. Chapter 11 is often applied very effectively in the US – consider GM for example.

In the US, we have seen record low interest rates, but creative destruction too.

In the UK where –to a large extent – we have only had record low rates, it may become a problem as the economy recovers, and rates finally rise.

© Investment & Business News 2013