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Global Crisis Blog

The Looming Crisis: But Does Obama Get It?

By Shlomo Maital

Clyde Prestowitz, former chief trade negotiator for U.S. President Ronald Reagan and noted author of bestsellers (Rogue Nation, Trading Places, Three Billion New Capitalists, and, most recently, The Betrayal of American Prosperity),     believes the global economy is heading for a looming crisis, suggesting the current global crisis is far from over.

He notes that everyone is discussing “rebalancing”.  Rebalancing means — The U.S. saves more, and consumes less;  Germany, Japan, China and Asia in general saves less and consumes more.  But, he noted, for the U.S. to consume more means reducing government entitlements, such as social security.  This is politically unfeasible.  For the U.S. to export more means Germany, Japan, China and Asia need to import more from the U.S. But since the U.S. does not have much manufacturing (only 10 per cent of GDP in the U.S. is from manufacturing, compared to 25 per cent a generation ago), there is little for other countries to buy even if they wished to.   Most of the high saving in China is done not by households but by companies.  Companies, even privately held ones, seek to grow. Growth occurs through reinvesting retained earnings.  So it is unlikely that China will have any incentive to save less.  Moreover, Germany’s business model is built on exports.  It is unlikely that Germany will abandon its fundamental business model, one that has worked well even during the current global crisis, simply because the U.S. requests it to do so.

And indeed — at the G20 meeting in Toronto, noted Prestowitz,  President Barack Obama asked the other countries to help with rebalancing and assist the U.S. in reducing its trade deficit.  If Obama is to avoid losing control of the House of Representatives in November elections, it is vital that the economy improve and the rate of unemployment decline.  But this will happen only if the U.S. trade deficit falls sharply — given that a fall in the U.S. budget deficit is likely, and this will work to contract the economy and contract employment.  For the U.S. trade deficit to fall, other nations must accept a fall in their exports to the U.S.  But the reaction of the G20 nations to Obama’s request was highly negative.

The result:  At some point, perhaps after a drubbing at the polls in November, Barack Obama will adopt drastic measures, perhaps protectionist ones, to limit imports and unilaterally curtail America’s trade deficit.  Other countries will respond.  And could we see a replay of the 1930’s, when America’s Smoot-Hawley tariff led to retaliation — and the virtual disappearance of world trade.

Mr. Prestowitz provides all of us with some serious food for thought.

Here is what he wrote recently (prior to the G20 meetings in Toronto) for Politico, a website that tracks the Obama presidency and American politics, as an open letter to President Obama:

As you prepare for this week’s G20 meeting in Toronto, you and your White House team are locked in debate with Congress and the punditry over the merits of more stimulus versus the demerits of the rising federal debt. While another shot of stimulus would be nice, even if you get it, it will likely be the last shot because the rising debt will become a real constraining factor. Moreover, the amount of stimulus you are asking for won’t be enough to create the jobs necessary to achieve full employment or to resurrect our past prosperity.   There is an easy solution that no one is talking about for fear of offending the high priests of the reigning economic orthodoxy. Our trade deficit of roughly $500 billion costs us from 2.5 million to 5 million jobs. Thus, eliminating the trade deficit would get you back to full employment without any necessity of more debt financed stimulus. Indeed, the new jobs created by reducing the trade deficit would themselves create the best kind of self-regenerating stimulus.   Nor would it be at all difficult or expensive to do. For one thing, the U.S. dollar is kept strongly over-valued by the constant buying of dollars by China and other Asian countries that keep their currencies undervalued by 25- 40 percent as a subsidy for their exports. China has just announced that it will begin to allow some flexibility in the exchange rate of its yuan. But the Chinese are thinking in terms of a 3-4 percent revaluation. You need an immediate revaluation of at least 25 percent in order to get anywhere near a real market valuation. You could do this by putting a tax on certain capital inflows into the United States.  You could also direct your Secretary of Commerce to initiate countervailing duty investigations on a broad range of imported products that benefit from the subsidy of the currency undervaluation. You must also create a fund to match the tax abatements, capital grants, and other investment incentives that China and many other countries use to bribe U.S. companies to offshore their factories and jobs. Finally, you need to stop giving away economic goodies to get geo-political crumbs.    Last year during you trip to China, you promised to help the Chinese develop the capability to build their own commercial jet liner. Why did you do that? Jet liners are one of our biggest exports. You have said you want to double exports. Well, you can’t do that by helping the Chinese beat Boeing.   Get smart Mr. President. Cutting the U.S. trade deficit is the only way for you to create new jobs that are good and that will last. It is the only way for you to revitalize the U.S. economy and it may be the only way for you to get reelected

Innovation Blog

“Think Behavioral, Not Technological”

By Shlomo Maital

Maddock and Viton

G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Viton write an excellent blog for Business Week, called “The Innovation Engine”.

In their latest blog (July 27), they write about how to innovate via mobile devices.  They recommend: “think behavioral, not technological”.  This advice is general, and applies to all varieties of innovation.  Think lifestyle, think sociology, think about how people want to live and how they use devices to help them live they way they want — and THEN think about pulling the technology and design that will fulfill people’s needs.

Here are their five rules for behaviorally innovating mobile devices:

1) The world loves instant gratification.  People are impatient. If you can design mobile devices and related apps that satisfies people’s needs instantly (not in one second, or three seconds, but in less than a millisecond), you have a winner.   Incidentally:  How come Microsoft has never yet been able to create an operating system that launches instantly when you turn on your computer?   Why does the Mac operating system launch faster?  And why, then, are we PC users second-class citizens — and accept it?

2) We like filling time vs. killing time.  Mobile devices help people “fill time”, in four to 10 minute increments.  Can you create ways to let people begin, and end, a task or an experience, in 4-10 minutes?

3) We crave superhero powers. We want to be everywhere, talk to everyone, connect with anyone, do anything, all at the same time.  Can you enable this simultaneity, simply, easily, without baffling the poor user?

4) We modify, adapt, hack, and generally MacGyver everything.   The blog authors say there are now more than 200,000 apps for iPhone!  The PC defeated the Mac, originally, because its open system generated far more software.  Did Apple learn its lesson?  Harness the brainpower of thousands and millions of software creators,  app inventors, and you vastly enhance the power and value of the iPhone.  Create platforms others eagerly use, to modify, adapt, hack and MacGyver.

5) We think of our mobile device as our “No. 1 recovery tool”.   Mobile devices are there when we need help.  This use is rarely stressed, but it is perhaps crucial —  it is why most people feel desperate if they happen to forget their mobile device.  This behavioral need — for security, for the ability to call for help when needed — is fundamental.  And it is a fact that the simple cell phone has saved many thousands of lives, in this way.  Understand the fundamental ways devices create true value, ways that people often are not able to articulate, by observing them closely.

Global Crisis Blog

How Geithner Bungled the Bailout of AIG and Wasted $182 b.

By Shlomo Maital

On Oct. 3, 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation authorizing the U.S. Treasury  to spend up to $700 billion ” to preserve home ownership, and promote economic growth.”  The authorization was given in a single vague line in a complex Act, The Emergency Stabilization Act,  an act that was defeated once and passed only after desperate pleas by the Treasury and the U.S. Fed that a financial meltdown would result if it did not pass.

A report [1] by the blue-ribbon U.S. Congressional Oversight Panel (whose role it is to oversee the bailout of US banks and companies with taxpayer money) reveals a massively hasty and poorly-designed bailout program, implemented in panic, that has wasted many billions of dollars in taxpayer money and may have done more harm than good.  The Panel members include Richard H. Neiman, Superintendent of Banks for the State of New York; Damon Silvers, Director of Policy and Special Counsel of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); and Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.    According to this report:

At its peak, American International Group (AIG) was one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, boasting a AAA credit rating, over $1 trillion in assets, and 76 million customers in more than 130 countries. Yet the sophistication of AIGs operations was not matched by an equally sophisticated risk-management structure. This poor management structure, combined with a lack of regulatory oversight, led AIG to accumulate staggering amounts of risk, especially in its Financial Products subsidiary, AIG Financial Products (AIGFP). Among its other operations, AIGFP sold credit default swaps (CDSs), instruments that would pay off if certain financial securities, particularly those made up of subprime mortgages, defaulted. So long as the mortgage market remained sound and AIGs credit rating remained stellar, these instruments did not threaten the companys financial stability. The financial crisis, however, fundamentally changed the equation on Wall Street. As subprime mortgages began to default, the complex securities based on those loans threatened to topple both AIG and other long-established institutions. During the summer of 2008, AIG faced increasing demands from their CDS customers for cash security – known as collateral calls – totaling tens of billions of dollars. These costs put AIGs credit rating under pressure, which in turn led to even greater collateral calls, creating even greater pressure on AIGs credit. By early September, the problems at AIG had reached a crisis point. A sinkhole had opened up beneath the firm, and it lacked the liquidity to meet collateral demands from its customers.  In only a matter of months AIGs worldwide empire had collapsed, brought down by the companys insatiable appetite for risk and blindness to its own liabilities.

AIG sought more capital in a desperate attempt to avoid bankruptcy. When the company  could not arrange its own funding, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President  Timothy Geithner, who is now Secretary of the Treasury, told AIG that the government would attempt to orchestrate a privately funded solution in coordination with JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. A day later, on September 16, 2008, FRBNY abandoned its effort at a private solution and rescued AIG with an $85 billion, taxpayer-backed Revolving Credit Facility (RCF). These funds would later be supplemented by $49.1 billion from Treasury under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), as well as additional funds from the Federal Reserve, with $133.3 billion outstanding in total.

The total government assistance reached $182 billion.

What was wrong with the way Geithner structured the bailout? The panel’s members observe these faults:

1. The government failed to exhaust all options before committing $85 billion in taxpayer funds. There were many untried options that could have saved a lot of money.

2. The rescue of AIG distorted the marketplace by transforming highly risky derivative bets into fully guaranteed payment obligations. Talk about “moral hazard” — AIG shareholders keep the profits, if there are any, and the U.S. taxpayer bears the loss, if the bet doesn’t pay off.   A lot of companies and individuals would love to have THAT deal.

3. Throughout its rescue of AIG, the government failed to address perceived conflicts of interest. People from the same small group of law firms, investment banks, and regulators appeared in the AIG saga in many roles, sometimes representing conflicting interests.

4. “Even at this late stage, it remains unclear whether taxpayers will ever be repaid in full. AIG and Treasury have provided optimistic assessments of AIGs value. As current AIG CEO Robert Benmosche told the Panel, “Im confident youll get your money, plus a profit.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), however, currently estimates that taxpayers will lose $36 billion.

5. “The government’s actions in rescuing AIG continue to have a poisonous effect on the marketplace.” The market now assumes there are businesses “too big to fail”.  This will have a massive distorting effect on capital markets in the near and distant future.   And it may prove wrong.  Taxpayer anger at the waste of their money on AIG may indeed cause companies in future to be allowed to fail, when perhaps they deserve a bailout.

[1] Congressional  Oversight Panel , June 10 2010: “The AIG Rescue, Its Impact on Markets, and theGovernment’s Exit Strategy”, Submitted under Section 125(b)(1) of Title 1 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-343.

Innovation Blog

How to destroy a great business by falling asleep: The case of Metro Goldwyn Mayer

By Shlomo Maital

The American people are rightly furious at the U.S. Treasury Dept. for its incompetent bailout of “too big to fail” companies (AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors).  The leaders of these companies, who were all extremely highly paid, all failed.  Many of them clearly did not know what was going on in their industry, in the world, and indeed within their own companies.  They endangered the livelihood of thousands of honest working people and betrayed their fiduciary trust.  The bailouts make it likely this will happen again.

Now, we have a case again of company leadership failing, this time destroying one of Hollywood’s most respected and venerable movie studios, MGM Metro Goldwyn Mayer, founded by legends Samuel Goldwyn and Louis Mayer in the 1920s.

MGM owns an enormous backlog of wonderful old movies.  For a time it made money by selling DVD’s.  Indeed the whole movie business shifted its revenue model toward DVD’s, which for many movies brought in more money than box office sales of tickets.

But today MGM is virtually bankrupt.  Its film library no longer generates sufficient revenues to pay MGM’s huge debts.  This was entirely predictable.   Had MGM’s management tracked the music industry, they would have seen how CD sales plummeted owing to the shift to on-line downloads, many of them pirated.  The same thing happened to movies.  And it was entirely predictable, years in advance, had movie executives simply stayed awake and drew conclusions from their friends in the music business.   Those same executives could have innovated their business model, shifting toward web-based business (just as Steve Jobs initiated with iTunes — virtually rescuing the music industry) and inexpensive downloads that create high volume business.

Time and time again, Peter Drucker’s axiom comes back to haunt us —   businesses fail not because they do things the wrong way but because they do the wrong things.  MGM is the latest example.   Nobody will bail MGM out.  But count on its senior managers to retire with golden parachutes.  MGM workers will, as always, face a hard landing.


See:  “Who killed James Bond?”, by Matthew Garrahan,  Financial Times, Weekend, July 25 2010, p. 1.

Global Crisis Blog

A Country Is a Business: Where to Place Your Bets?

By Shlomo Maital

An article in The Irish Independent by Brendan Keenan helps answer the question:  Which countries will emerge quickest and strongest from the global crisis? [1]

Ireland has taken an enormous ‘hit’ during the global crisis, because its banks were overleveraged and undertook huge risks.   Ireland has gone from being Europe’s poster boy for strategic planning to becoming Europe’s basket case, with government debt threatening to destabilize the economy and with unemployment high and growing.

But don’t count Ireland out.  After all, a country is a business.  Ireland’s business is being well run.  Recall that Ireland, as a nation, has several centuries of crisis-ridden history. Its people are used to crisis and are flexible, resilient and tough.   The collective memory includes the Potato Famine of 1845-7, when a million Irish died or emigrated.   Ireland now has a large trade surplus, as Keenan notes.  And the Irish people have shifted from debt to asset accumulation, with an extremely high rate of saving.

The last piece in the strategic puzzle for Ireland is this:  Businesses need to resume investment spending, in plant, infrastructure and R&D.  So far they haven’t.  When they do, they will find plenty of funds in capital markets, from the high savings of individuals.   For banks to resume investment, two things need to happen:  First, businesses need to be persuaded that the mid-term prognosis for the Irish and world economies is favorable (so far, it isn’t, especially because of the weakness of the Euro zone),  and the financial intermediaries (banks) need to resume lending and stop hoarding cash to build up their shaky balance sheets.

Which country should we bet on, to emerge strongest from the crisis?  The country that is run like a well-run business,  and the country where businesses resume investing in the future.    So far, it looks very unlikely that America will be able to fit that bill, in the foreseeable future.  But Ireland?  Well, it just might.

[1] “The Keenan View: Our trade surplus and huge savings make us different”, Irish Independent, Thursday July 22, Business section, p. 4.

Global Crisis Blog

From Crisis to Opportunity:  Airline Leases Take Off

By Shlomo Maital

Our new book Global Risk/Global Opportunity (SAGE 2010) stresses that  in every aspect of the current global crisis (which, we argue, has not ended, but has simply changed its form, shape and nature), risk can be transformed into major business opportunities.

Here is an example.

The Farnborough International Airshow opened Monday in the UK. It is the aircraft industry’s largest trade show.  Wall Street Journal Europe reports that “demand for planes is rising” and “money is returning to the aviation market”.  However, the industry is changing radically.

Global deleveraging (the desperate effort of individuals, families, businesses, banks and governments alike to reduce debt burdens) is making credit scarce. Airlines are finding it harder (and less worthwhile)   to buy planes with borrowed funds, especially when nervous capital markets punish companies that have high debt-equity ratios (leverage) and banks are reluctant to part with their cash.

This has created a boom in aircraft leasing.  It was predictable long ago.  Just as most people now buy cars, in many countries, with leasing agreements,  so airlines are shifting to leasing.  According to the WSJ,  fully a third of all aircraft are not owned by the airlines but are leased.  In the ’70s and ’80s, that fraction was 10-15 percent.  The leasing giants are GE Capital (world’s biggest) and BOC Aviation (a unit of Bank of China).

Aircraft leasing has many advantages.  Airlines that fail to meet payments lose the planes in the wink of an eye; aircraft leasing firms are good at this.   Unlike buildings, which cannot sprout legs and fly,  planes can — so leasing firms can quickly sell foreclosed planes without loss.  Look for leased aircraft to rise to fully half of all aircraft flying, within the next few years.   Leasing companies buy large numbers of aircraft (GE Capital is about to do so), and borrow money with the aircraft themselves as collateral.   Sound like mortgage-backed securities?  Not quite.  In the downturn, planes have maintained their value (unlike houses).  And they can move anywhere, quickly.

If you are in financial services, and are looking for a growth engine within an industry that remains troubled, consider this one.   It meets a major need of struggling airlines to renew their aging fleets, without putting massive amounts of debt on their balance sheets.  Ask yourself, what are the core competencies needed to become a successful aircraft lessor?   Do I have those competencies?  How can I innovate within this industry?  Where are their hidden niche markets?

Source:   “Airplane leases take off”, WSJ Europe,  by Daniel Michaels, Monday July 19, 2010, p. 1.

Innovation Blog

“Planck” Reveals Radiation from the Birth of the Universe!

By Shlomo Maital

First full sky-map from “Planck” mission

An announcement on July 5 by the European Space Agency (ESA), about the Planck mission to explore the cosmos went largely unnoticed, but is utterly stunning.  The first full-sky map picture from Planck has been released, and it purports to show the radiation left over from the Big Bang — the birth of the universe.

The Planck mission was launched in May 2009 with the main goal of mapping the CMB, the primordial radiation leftover from the Big Bang. Slight variations in the temperature of the CMB are believed to reflect fluctuations in the early universe from which large structures such as galaxies would later evolve.

One of the main scientific goals of the Planck mission is to investigate what happened during the inflationary period shortly after the Big Bang, when the universe expanded by 1028 within just 10–36 of a second. This process is necessary in all mainstream models of the universe, but the details of the expansion are still debated. “The Planck data will provide our first realistic test of inflationary models ” explained Norma Sanchez, a cosmologist at the Observertoire de Paris, also speaking in Turin.

Neither you, reader, nor I can probably detect where that CMB radiation actually is, in the Planck picture, but I presume the scientists can.  It is still incredible to look at that picture, and to think that in there, somewhere, is the faint trace of the radiation created when the universe was born some 10 billion years ago.

Happy Birthday, Universe.  One day soon, we will truly understand how you were born.  Perhaps then, we will be able to replicate parts of the process, to create our own “suns” (energy from fusion) and forever make BP, Exxon and Gazprom obsolete.

Innovation Blog

Is General Motors Waking Up? Build-It-Yourself As an Innovation Experience

By Shlomo Maital

After 80 years, and near-bankruptcy, is General Motors finally waking up and smelling the coffee?   Is GM realizing that many of those who buy expensive cars actually LOVE cars and deserve, for their money, a first-rate car experience?

The New York Times reports that those who buy a new Corvette will have the option, for two models, to build their own engine — a 7 liter massive piece of engineering.  The cost of the build-it-yourself option is substantial:  $5,800, according an automotive PR magazine:

Have you always wanted to assemble a car engine? If so you may want to consider buying a Corvette Z06 or ZR1, this is because there is a new build-your-own engine option available.  This option will set you back $5,800 extra, don’t worry if you are worried that you will end up with an engine that does not run, as a General Motors technician will supervise you throughout the build.  It is no secret that Corvette owners are usually very passionate, therefore General Motors may have found a niche in the market, which will make enthusiasts even more involved in their motoring.   If you choose the build-your-own option for the Corvette Z06 you will be putting together a massive 7-liter engine, whereas the ZR1’s engine is a supercharged 6.2 liter engine. If you choose this option you will have to travel to the Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan….

This could be an innovation trend. Can you find ways to create buyer buy-in, to leverage clients’  passion for your product, by giving them some role in actually making part of the product?   Note how IKEA has leveraged this — it both saves costs when buyers do the assembly, and for some (not all!) provides an empowering experience.    (Apparently, many women do the actual assembly of IKEA furniture — and do it well!).   For years, pathbreaking innovators have had lead users (a la MIT’s Fred von Hippel) help with designing the product. Why not let them join the assembly line too?   And, for GM, why not let the passionate Corvette buyers actually manage  and run the whole Corvette division? They could do no worse than current management — and probably a whole lot better.

I think it is an error to charge buyers $5,800 for this build-it-yourself option, even if it does cost GM money to assign a supervising engineer.  Come on, GM.   Give a little ‘margin’ for those truly passionate about their Corvettes.   And for once, before you appoint senior managers, could we have a polygraph for each?   Only one question:  Do you honestly and truly LOVE cars and are passionate about building and driving them?  Only a straight ‘yes’ gets you a job.  How many of GM’s current executives would pass the test?!

Innovation Blog

Making New Things Out of Old Ones: A Proven Route to Successful Innovation

By Shlomo Maital

Travolta, Newton-John,   GREASE  (1978)

Today’s Global New York Times has a great story about how Hollywood (hide-bound industry that is usually dinosaur-slow  to innovate its business model) is finally acting to innovate movie theaters, just before they all become obsolete and disappear. (“Hollywood encourages noisemaking at theaters”,  July 13, 2010, by Brooks Barnes, p. 16).

For instance, a hit 1978 movie Grease has been rereleased.  It is a sing-along version.  Subtitles show the lyrics, and viewers are encouraged to sing along and make noise in other ways.  Audiences are invited to come in costumes. (Remind you of sports events, like the Mondiale, where the crowd paints its face and wears bizarre costumes?).

The head of Paramount, Adam Goodman, says, “the goal is to create a true event… how do you get groups of young people going to the movies and having a great time?”  In other words, create a true experience, as Joe Pine and James Gilmour advise in their Strategic Horizons consultancy.

Unknowingly, Goodman is using the framework of Peter Drucker, who helps us challenge unspoken key assumptions (e.g., audiences at a movie must be absolutely silent, to make noise is rude).

Why did it take movie theaters so long to innovate?  Hard to say.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show moviegoers for years have created precisely this kind of noisy crowd-involved event, making a bad movie into a huge cash cow for years.  Finally, the multiplex chains get it!  They are using the Rocky model….  but years after Rocky fans were showing them the way.

A great approach to innovation is to take old stuff and renew it, by changing how it is offered.   The time to do this is BEFORE the old stuff becomes obsolete and money-losing, not AFTER.  But better late than never.   Never fall into the trap of thinking that everything has to be brand new.    Start with old things.  Remember, old beloved things have a powerful nostalgia effect that is priceless — build on it, keep the core, renew the periphery, and create a winning old-new innovation.

In writing about his vision of a Jewish state, Theodore Herzl wrote a little book called Alt-Neue Land  (“Old-New Land”).   Write your own book, old-new land, about innovating old products.  If you can find creative ways to link new things with old offerings, you can innovate in places where others fail even to consider.

Innovation Blog

The Role of Fear in Innovation: Face It, Push Back, Overcome!

By Shlomo Maital

As a half-pint squirt, I recall growing up in fear — fear of bullies, fear of failure, fear of not getting approval from parents and teachers.   I think what I achieved was greatly limited by this fear, and only late in life have I learned to overcome it.

That is why I was so pleased to read, in the latest AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) Bulletin (“the world’s largest circulation magazine”) a short piece by the Editor, Nancy Perry Graham, titled “When dreams take flight”.  Ms. Graham recounts taking an American Airlines fear-of-flying course, in preparing a story for Fortune about executives terrified of air travel.   Those who took the course and overcame their fear spoke of it being “one of the great experiences of my life, I’m angry at myself for not doing it a long time ago!”.

Graham recounts a key line from the best-selling book Who Moved My Cheese? It reads:  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”.

So, reader — what would YOU do if you weren’t afraid?  What are you afraid of?  Why?   What would happen if you did the very things you feared?

Innovation involves taking risks.  Risk engenders fear.   You cannot take calculated risks if the visceral emotion of fear clouds your judgment.   Launch today a systematic program of overcoming fears, by listing your deepest fears,  beginning with small ones and progressing to larger ones, and tackling them one by one.   Push back against fear!  Don’t wait, as I did, until it is almost too late.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?   Absolutely everything, and anything, that will change the world.  Go for it.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
July 2010