Opinion

Felix Salmon

Wall Street analysts deserve a “sell” rating

Felix Salmon
Jan 21, 2011 17:37 UTC

Jennifer Saba makes an important point about milquetoast tech analysts today: faced with huge news about shake-ups in the CEO position at both Apple and Google, precisely zero analysts asked any questions on that subject during the companies’ earnings calls.

In the case of Google, the company went out of its way to open itself up to such questions: it started its call with comments from Page, Schmidt, and Brin, all of whom talked explicitly about the changes, and then invited questions for them specifically before returning to old-fashioned earnings-call questions. The transcript, when you read it, is almost hilarious:

>>Patrick Pichette

Jay, if you don’t mind, what we will do is we will set up two sets of questions for this afternoon. We will just take a few questions now because we have Larry, Sergey and Eric, and so we will take a few questions. And then after that, we will close that section of the call, let them run back — go back to work, guys — and then we will take the regular call as we usually proceed. So, Jay, if I can ask you to give us the instructions to take a couple of questions for Eric, Larry and Sergey.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). James Mitchell, Goldman Sachs.

>>James Mitchell

Congratulations on the movements, and congratulations on the results. I guess one question I had just stemming from the results rather than from the movements perhaps is when I look at the investments in 111 8th Avenue in New York City, do you feel that Google is now at a point where in order to continue facilitating the growth of the Internet that there will be a land grab for desirable physical locations?

It’s sad but true: faced with an open invitation to ask Google’s troika anything he wanted about the leadership of the company, Goldman’s star tech analyst instead simply said “congratulations on the movements,” and moved swiftly on to a question about Google’s decision to buy rather than rent its New York office.

There’s no good reason for this kind of behavior. Analysts are happy asking tough questions on calls and in their reports: it’s not like they are or should be scared of annoying senior management. What’s more, Google clearly wanted and expected questions about the C-suite changes.

But Wall Street analysts are much happier with spreadsheets than they are with anything human, and faced with the opportunity to ask flesh-and-blood questions, they get squeamish and retreat to their quanty ivory towers.

Which is one more reason, if reason be needed, to treat everything coming out of Wall Street’s research shops as fundamentally incomplete.

COMMENT

I might read an analyst for his industry evaluation; I would never read an analyst for his buy/sell recommendation. Other than general observations on broad issues, I don’t trust any of these guys with my money.

I’m not sure on the degree of market Efficiency, which is an enormously complex question possibly beyond answer until much later in this century, but I’m sure that by the time I read any recommendation the market has had time to digest the information. Bargains take dis-equilibrium on a substantial scale.

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Eric Schmidt’s next act

Felix Salmon
Jan 21, 2011 16:35 UTC

Ken Auletta, who literally wrote the book when it comes to Google, has a must-read take on what exactly is going on with Eric Schmidt, and goes out on a limb by saying that his tenure in the weird job of non-CEO executive chairman will last just one year before Schmidt leaves to “do something else.” (This fits with reports that Schmidt is planning to sell a chunk of Google stock.)

The era of Larry Page, CEO, is about to begin: it’s clearly what Page wants, but it’s also something that he’s temperamentally ill-suited to:

Larry Page, who read books on business as a young man, who at age twelve read a biography of Nikola Tesla and took away the lesson that it was not enough to be a brilliant scientist if you were not also a good businessman who controlled your inventions, had more aptitude for management than Sergey Brin. It was always assumed that one day Page would be C.E.O. Now that he is about to be, he will have to change. He is a very private man, who often in meetings looks down at his hand-held Android device, who is not a comfortable public speaker, who hates to have a regimented schedule, who thinks it is an inefficient use of his time to invest too much of it in meetings with journalists or analysts or governments. As C.E.O., the private man will have to become more public.

Looked at in this light, Schmidt’s year as executive chairman is essentially a way of softening the blow of being CEO: Schmidt will take on a lot of the responsibilities which Page is ill-suited to, at least for a while, giving Page some time to get his management ducks in a row before facing a lot of public music.

Meanwhile, YouGov BrandIndex sends over this chart, showing that the perceptions gap between Facebook and Google has never been narrower:

moz-screenshot-108.png

My suspicion is that it’s Sergei, rather than Larry, who’s going to be mostly responsible for keeping Google’s score as high as possible here, and tending the don’t-be-evil flame. He’s also going to be in charge of various undisclosed moves out of Google’s core advertising business, while Larry tries to bring more focus and drive to what has become a very large bureaucracy.

As for Eric, as Auletta says, he’s “fifty-five, a billionaire, a man comfortable in his own skin.” The option space available to him is enormous. But after spending his entire professional life working for other people, I suspect he’ll want to be the owner or founder of whatever he does next.

COMMENT

John, I wouldn’t have a meeting with Diller if I am running google. He is an overrated trader of internet companies, most of which peaked just as he bought them. Many of his companies compete (poorly) with one google service or another, but if I was in a meeting with him, I would look at my android. I’d try to be discreet about it, so as to not insult the guy, but I would bet Diller looks at his Blackberry when he is in meetings.

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The metastasizing state-bankruptcy meme

Felix Salmon
Jan 21, 2011 15:35 UTC

Talk of introducing legislation allowing states to declare bankruptcy began in earnest in November. A speech by Newt Gingrich was followed up by a big Weekly Standard piece on the subject by David Skeel, and soon the meme filtered into the blogosphere. Unlike most political chatter, this kind of talk isn’t cheap at all: it’s very expensive. As the subject has refused to go away—which means, as House Republicans have continued to work on drafting some kind of bill—the municipal debt market has plunged.

Now, with a massive front-page story in the NYT, the stakes have got even higher. Mary Williams Walsh is well aware of what she’s doing: she talks explicitly about “the fear of destabilizing the municipal bond market with the words ‘state bankruptcy’”; while at the same time splashing those very words across the most influential public real estate in the world. She frets that the mere introduction of a state bankruptcy bill could lead to some kind of market penalty, even if it never passed—but the fact is that her own article, in and of itself, is almost certain to drive up borrowing costs and uncertainty.

Walsh’s piece comes on the heels of an important report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which makes a compelling case that state bankruptcy is neither necessary nor desirable:

It would be unwise to encourage states to abrogate their responsibilities by enacting a bankruptcy statute. States have adequate tools and means to meet their obligations. The potential for bankruptcy would just increase the political difficulty of using these other tools to balance their budgets, delaying the enactment of appropriate solutions. In addition, it could push up the cost of borrowing for all states, undermining efforts to invest in infrastructure.

But the message isn’t sinking in. James Pethokoukis is a reliable guide to what the GOP is thinking:

The NYT article raises the specter that states would be shut out of credit markets if allowed to declare bankruptcy, or if one should actually take that step if federal law is changed. That seems unlikely, although some may have to pay higher interest rates. Municipalities and even countries repudiate debt and yet continue to borrow. And even investor apprehension would be balanced by states getting their finances in order, which should appeal to potential lenders.

This is completely bonkers. If states are allowed to file for bankruptcy, then Illinois, for one, would be shut out of credit markets. And if Illinois or any other state were to actually go ahead and file, then many other states, including New York, would be shut out of credit markets. That’s not “unlikely,” it’s certain.

As for Jim’s idea that “municipalities and even countries repudiate debt and yet continue to borrow,” he’s just plain wrong about that. A country which repudiates debt has no access to private credit markets: the only borrowing ever available to such a state is from official-sector institutions. I defy Jim to name a single municipality or country which has repudiated its debt and yet continued to borrow money in the private markets.

That said, it’s pretty unthinkable, even if a state were to declare bankruptcy, that it would go so far as to repudiate its debts. Indeed, bankruptcy is a formal recognition that a borrower is sinking under the weight of far too many legitimate debts; it seeks to restructure some of those debts to make them manageable, rather than repudiating them outright.

On the other hand, Jim’s utterly wrong that somehow bankruptcy is costless to the states, and that the downside of forcing a haircut on lenders would be fully counteracted by the upside of putting the states on a solid fiscal footing. Lenders really don’t much care about fiscal sustainability: all they care about is that they get their money back, as contracted, in full and on time.

It’s worth remembering here that most municipal bondholders are individuals, rather than sophisticated institutional investors. If your aunt Sally put her savings into state bonds, she is not going to be happy if she can’t get her money back, and she is certainly not going to be mollified by talk of lower deficits in future. The deficits are what allowed her to buy the bonds in the first place; she doesn’t particularly want them to go away. But there’s no way she’ll stand for a haircut. And, of course, she votes.

The fact is that states are not going to declare bankruptcy, and they’re not even going to be allowed to declare bankruptcy. So the worst thing that can happen, for the municipal bond market, is that people continue to talk about municipal bankruptcy for the next couple of years. Let’s take the option off the table, once and for all, rather than taking it seriously and thereby only making it harder for states to borrow the money they need.

COMMENT

1-What about future medical costs/coverage?
2-It seems politicians aren’t to be trusted with taxpayers money. To make a deal assuming 8% annual returns is fantasy. Just a way for politicians to buy votes. Bills are coming due, as they always do. Nothing
against teachers, we need more police, get rid of redundant administrative state beaurocratic positions once and for all.

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Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jan 21, 2011 05:13 UTC

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on the muni crisis — CBPP

AOL is a scam, selling internet access to elderly people who already have internet access — TBI

Goldman made its enormous stock and options award the day after announcing a huge loss — CNBC

Citigroup Defective-Loan Rate Improves to F+ — Bloomberg

“Words like shallow, facile, glib and slick are not insults to a journalist” — Guardian

COMMENT

I think it depends on the subject material and the source. If the subject material is a highly political topic that deals with ethics coming from an admittedly biased source, then yes, that does rub me the wrong way. If the subject material is “how to think about microcomputing” at an MIT conference, then I see a bit of a difference there.

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Eric Schmidt and the job of non-CEO executive chairman

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2011 21:51 UTC

Ten years is a long time to be one of the most visible CEOs in the world, especially when the buck doesn’t really stop with you but rather with a triumvirate where you’re clearly the third wheel. So the news that Eric Schmidt is handing over the top job at Google to Larry Page makes a certain amount of sense. As he said on Twitter, Page has a decade’s experience as a senior executive of Google, and day-to-day adult supervision is no longer needed. Google’s venture-capital backers had every reason to want Page and Brin to bring in an experienced outside CEO in 2001. Today, most of those reasons no longer apply, and Google can be run by one of its two founders, in a world where founders, in general, beat out managers.

Schmidt is also keeping for himself the outside-facing parts of CEO-dom which Silicon Vally nerds by their nature are pretty bad at. He has a clumsy way of putting it, but when he talks about “the deals, partnerships, customers and broader business relationships, government outreach and technology thought leadership that are increasingly important given Google’s global reach,” he basically means the large part of the CEO job which involves schmoozing various people in Google’s interest.

This is an interesting role, in terms of US corporate governance. Non-executive chairmen are common, but executive chairmen are nearly always the CEO as well. There’s a good reason for that: all executives ultimately report to the CEO, while the CEO reports to the board and its chairman. An executive chairman who’s not the CEO will be both an executive, reporting to the CEO, as well as being the CEO’s boss. That could conceivably get awkward — but Google is a special case. For one thing, the CEO isn’t going to be asking for a massive pay package, so tension surrounding compensation goes out the window. On top of that, the idea of Google being run by a triumvirate was already awkward, and this new setup isn’t any more awkward than that.

When I was pondering the idea that Facebook could remain a privately-traded company in perpetuity, it seemed to me that one of the main reasons for it to do so was that Mark Zuckerberg has neither the inclination nor the desire to do the kind of outward-facing schmoozing that Schmidt is taking as his job. But Zuckerberg can’t follow Google’s lead and hire an executive chairman while remaining CEO. He wants full control—which means being both chairman and CEO, reporting to no one but a hand-picked board.

So while the job of non-CEO executive chairman is a fascinating one, don’t expect to see it replicated much if at all. It works for Google; it probably doesn’t work elsewhere.

COMMENT

Sounds like a good formula for turning Facebook into the next iteration of Friendster

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Desnobbing wine

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2011 20:37 UTC

David Kesmodel reports that US consumers finally seem to be waking up to the fact that there’s no correlation between price and quality when it comes to wine:

The economic downturn was toughest for the U.S. wineries that sell wines for $20 a bottle and up. After switching to less-expensive wines in the downturn, many consumers are staying at those lower prices because they liked what they found, industry executives and analysts say.

Actually, there are two parallel things going on here. The first is that wine in the $9 to $12 range tastes just as good as wine in the $20 to $30 range. The second is that US wine over $20 is massively overpriced.

Kesmodel’s article quotes three individual winemakers. Two are in Napa; the first sells wine at $100 a bottle, while the second sells wine between $28 and $55. The third is in Washington, and sells wine at about $50 a pop.

At these levels, wine is not an everyday pleasure — not unless you’re solidly in the ranks of the rich. Instead it’s a tool for snobbery and one-upmanship, and a way of selling wine to people who choose wine based on exactly two numbers: its rating out of 100, and its price in dollars. In both cases, it is understood, higher means better.

It’s not hard to shatter these illusions, though. Once people move from $50 US wines to $11 French wines and actually prefer the latter to the former, then it’s all over for the Americans.

Much of the California wine business is based on the idea that California wines compete only with each other; in the upside-down world of Veblen goods, they often compete on price not by being cheaper than their competitors but rather by being more expensive.

It’s also true, however, that people who downgrade from luxury goods to better-but-cheaper mass-market alternatives very rarely trade back up again. Once you trade in your Vertu for an iPhone, you’re unlikely switch back.

And that seems to be what has happened in the wine world. If American wine drinkers are losing their snobbery, that’s great news for anybody who wants to see a vibrant culture of wine drinking in the US. But it’s very bad news for high-end wineries selling their juice at upwards of $50 a bottle.

COMMENT

I like the idea of allowing phone app users to add info about great tasting low cost wine. The iNapa iPhone app has just been updated and it is a great tool to explore California Wine Country. It locates the 10 closest to current location or select an area on a northern California map to display wineries at that location or browse by name. A fun way to find your favorite wine and discover new wineries. No network required & no typing necessary. http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/inapa/id3 59715668?mt=8

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Dodd-Frank vs Basel III

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2011 16:38 UTC

When the big financial-overhaul bill was working its way through Congress, Treasury persuaded legislators to avoid passing rules on bank capital or liquidity. Leave all that to Basel, they said, so that there could be a global, unified system. And that’s what happened. But if two huge new systems are passed by two highly complex bureaucracies, there are bound to be conflicts. And Melvyn Westlake has a great story in Global Risk Regulator on one of those conflicts: the role of the ratings agencies.

Under Dodd-Frank, the official role of ratings agencies was severely curtailed: regulators are not allowed to use credit ratings when promulgating rules. Under Basel III, however, regulators have to measure the riskiness of bond portfolios somehow, in order to work out how much capital banks should be required to hold against them. Credit ratings are particularly central, under the Basel regime, when it comes to securitizations and measuring both liquidity and counterparty risk.

Squaring this circle, it turns out, is very hard indeed:

“Nobody has put forward any really satisfactory ideas,” admits a Federal Reserve regulator. Already, the absence of a practical alternative to credit ratings has begun to impair new rulemaking in Washington…

The inability to find a solution and the looming deadline is “a source of a great deal of concern,” says Karen Petrou, executive director of Federal Financial Analytics, a Washington consultancy on regulation. “The agencies are informally admitting that they are stumped. But the deadline is only six months away, so something has got to happen. The law is very clear. It says there may be no reference to ratings,” she adds. “We are going to have a hell of a time with the Basel III rules because of the way ratings are still embedded in them,” Petrou reckons…

Finding an alternative to ratings “is not proving an easy task,” confirms Nancy Hunt, associate director for capital markets in the FDIC’s supervision and consumer protection division. “We are looking at several approaches, some more mathematical than others, and trying to backtest them to see if they perform better than rating agencies,” she says. “It’s a very complex and involved process. But we have a law, and we have to figure out how to do this.”

Backtesting is important, of course, but it’s also dangerous: it assumes that the future will be like the past, when the whole point of crises is that they happen when something unprecedented happens. Given the wobbliness of a lot of OECD sovereign debt, for instance, it would surely not be a good idea to put in place a rule which assumes that no OECD debt will ever default or be restructured.

And this, too, is worrisome:

One approach that has been considered by the agencies is using probability of default (PD) and loss given default (LGD) calculations.

I’ve seen that approach before. In fact, I wrote about it at length, in a cover story for Wired entitled “The formula that killed Wall Street.” One would hope that at this point it was discredited.

The alternative, I think, is dumb regulation: just slap conservative risk ratios on pretty much everything, like we did in Basel I, and don’t try to be clever when it comes to measuring risk. That’s just a recipe for regulatory arbitrage. It’s not perfect — dumb regulation never is. But in this case, the perfect is very much the enemy of the good.

COMMENT

Thanks for your post, Thomson Reuters Risk Management has also written an interesting article on Basel III on its blog, Risk in the Market http://riskinthemarket.thomsonreuters.co m/2011/basel-iii/

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Norway, entrepreneurial paradise

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2011 15:25 UTC

Max Chafkin has a fantastic story in Inc magazine about how to structure an economy so as to encourage entrepreneurship, full employment, and general happiness and contentment, all while drastically reducing inequality. It’s easy, in fact: all you need to do is become Norway.

There’s loads of great stuff in this piece, and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. But a few things stand out.

Chafkin starts with the tale of Wiggo Dalmo, an industrial mechanic with a high-school education who chafed under his bosses, set up his own shop, and is now running a $44 million company with 150 employees. That’s the kind of story which should be common in the US but is in fact rare. But ask yourself: in the US, how much would such a person be paying in taxes? Dalmo paid $102,970 in personal taxes on his income and wealth last year, which is probably lower, not higher, than the CEO of a $44 million company would pay in taxes in the US.

The reason is that there’s much less income inequality in Norway. With a strong social safety net, the downside to starting a company and failing is small. As a result, entrepreneurship isn’t a lottery, so much as a lifestyle choice. If you succeed, you’ll get to run a large and successful corporation. But you probably won’t pay yourself a monster income.

Why not? Well, for one thing, you won’t need to pay yourself a monster income, since things like healthcare and college education — even through grad school, even outside the country — are covered by the state. Another part of the reason is that income, in Norway, is a matter of public record. And then there’s the fact that money which would otherwise be going to the top of the pyramid is instead going to the bottom, where it does much more good:

In a country with low unemployment and generous unemployment benefits, a worker’s threat to quit is more credible than it is in the United States, giving workers more leverage over employers. And though Norway makes it easy to lay off workers in cases of economic hardship, firing an employee for cause typically takes months, and employers generally end up paying at least three months’ severance. “You have to be a much more democratic manager,” says Bjørn Holte, founder and CEO of bMenu, an Oslo-based start-up that makes mobile versions of websites. Holte pays himself $125,000 a year. His lowest-paid employee makes more than $60,000. “You can’t just treat them like machines,” he says. “If you do, they’ll be gone.”

Incentives matter, of course. But not all incentives are purely financial. And there are serious problems with the US system where the incentives seem to be structured so that a large number of people are competing to become one of a very small number of monster success stories — multi-millionaire startup founders, or sports stars, or CEOs. Most of us, it turns out, have problems with the idea of playing that kind of lottery. As Chafkin reports:

I also became convinced of this truth, which I have observed in the smartest American and the smartest Norwegian entrepreneurs: It’s not about the money. Entrepreneurs are not hedge fund managers, and they rarely operate like coldly rational economic entities. This theme runs through books like Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants, about company owners who choose not to maximize profits and instead seek to make their companies great; and it can be found in the countless stories, many of them told in this magazine, of founders who leave money on the table in favor of things they judge to be more important.

There’s a lot of talk, in the US, about how small businesses are the engine of employment growth — something we clearly desperately need. And it looks like Norway has cracked this nut: it leads the world in the creation of small businesses, and it has just 3.5% unemployment, not to mention essentially zero poverty.

Raising taxes on small businesses in and of itself won’t help the rate of small-business creation — but it’s actually unlikely to hurt it that much, either. (And interestingly, taxes paid by an employer in New York are actually higher than those paid in Norway.) What would help would be a much stronger social safety net, so that someone who starts a company doesn’t need to fear a life of poverty in the event that she fails. Encouraging small businesses necessarily means encouraging failure — but the cost of failure is very high, in the US. Instead, we spend far too much time worrying about tax rates on the successful.

There is precious little evidence to suggest that our low taxes have done much for entrepreneurs—or even for the economy as a whole. “It’s actually quite hard to say how tax policy affects the economy,” says Joel Slemrod, a University of Michigan professor who served on the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan. Slemrod says there is no statistical evidence to prove that low taxes result in economic prosperity. Some of the most prosperous countries—for instance, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and, yes, Norway—also have some of the highest taxes. Norway, which in 2009 had the world’s highest per-capita income, avoided the brunt of the financial crisis: From 2006 to 2009, its economy grew nearly 3 percent. The American economy grew less than one-tenth of a percent during the same period. Meanwhile, countries with some of the lowest taxes in Europe, like Ireland, Iceland, and Estonia, have suffered profoundly. The first two nearly went bankrupt; Estonia, the darling of antitax groups like the Cato Institute, currently has an unemployment rate of 16 percent. Its economy shrank 14 percent in 2009.

You can’t blame all of Estonia’s problems on its low taxes, of course — the currency issue (Norway’s kroner is floating, while Estonia just joined the euro) is also huge. And Norway does have all that oil revenue, too. But looking at Estonia’s housing bubble and bust, one sees an economy where people are striving to get rich quick, in contrast to Norway’s culture of simply trying to be as happy and successful as possible. Which turns out to be extremely successful.

COMMENT

Great article! I’ve been wondering about the fact that in the USA the top environments for startups seem to be mostly in some of the highest taxed places…Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, etc. I’m not sure about taxes in Boulder and Austen relative to average communities but I know the top three are much higher. And yet young entrepreneurs continue to migrate there.

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Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2011 06:11 UTC

Why Obama has to nominate a CFPB director by July — HuffPo

Bus Rapid Transit in NYC: It works! — Gothamist

How have I not seen this amazing Ken Robinson education animation before now? — YouTube

Henry Blodget blind item! Who is the entrepreneur-philanthropist who went to Davos in the 90s but can no longer get in? Kevin Ryan? — TBI

COMMENT

hsvkitty, I suspect I love arguing too much. Given no other foil, I’d debate myself to death…

Wish I could offer a good answer to your “no money” objection, but quality education ain’t cheap. Private schools have the easiest job in the world, supportive families, engaged parents, kids without severe behavioral problems or learning disabilities (other than those schools that specifically serve this population). Yet even the “no frills” schools spend more per pupil than our public warehouses.

It isn’t a “night and day” difference in expenditure, but something that could be addressed with as little as a 20% budget increase. Unfortunately that is impossible when most of the people paying for education (i.e. the taxpayers) have minimal interest in the quality of the outcome. Sad.

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