Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The brains in a company are at the bottom of the pyramid

The higher you go up the corporate ladder, the duller you become. And yet decision-making is concentrated at the top. FT columnist Lucy Kellaway quotes a graduate trainee on the subject:
The main thing that had struck him so far was that people seemed to get dimmer the higher they went in the organisation. His fellow trainees were almost all brilliant, he said, and people at the next level up were also pretty smart. But those 10 years older were pedestrian by comparison, while some of the partners seemed borderline moronic.

I asked if he had any explanation for this. He looked at me as if I were a moron too and said the reason was self-selection. Really smart people don’t stay at the institutions they have fought so hard to get into. The best leave within two or three years; the slightly less good stay a bit longer, and only the also-rans and the terminally unimaginative are in for the long haul. 
Kellaway rightly points out that success in a company has little to do with brilliance. A company values other things in people:
Rather than reward brilliance it prefers skills that graduates can’t see: good judgment, a nice way with clients, and an instinct for when to bite your lip. Even if today’s partners weren’t boring to start off with, they quickly learn to seem that way. 
So, there are strengths that people at the top bring to the table. The challenge is how to marry the analytical brilliance at the bottom with the sound judgement and rounded view that obtains at the top of a company. One thing that Kellaway highlights is that the two levels need to talk to each - and understand what the other is saying. The other thing, which I believe is important, is that decision-making must be truly participative. Don't leave decision making only to sound judgement; bring in the creative, disruptive types at the bottom as well. 

US takes aim at ISIS- or is the target Assad?

The US, supported by Australia and soon to be joined by the UK, has put together a coalition of an estimate 40 nations to take on ISIS. Initially, the US will launch air strikes and provide advisors on the ground. However, it could only be a matter of time before the US puts boots on the ground.

The coalition is truly bizarre. It includes nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the GCC who, amongst others, are the very nations that created and propped up ISIS in many ways. The Saudis and GCC provided financial support, if not directly then through private donors. Turkey has kept its borders open for jihadists to go through and for ISIS to sell oil. And yet they have now made a U-turn exactly as Pakistan did with respect to the Taliban post- 9/11.Equally bizarre is the exclusion of the two nations that have steadfastly opposed ISIS, Iran and Syria (although John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has said that Iran may be free to join).

To aid the US involvement in Iraq and Syria, we have seen the figures of ISIS fighters swelling by the week. The earlier 15,000 fighters now number over 30,000. US officials gravely inform the world that the IS is beyond anything they have seen before. What's going on?

The ISIS, intelligence sources have indicated, poses no immediate threat to the west. America's return to the Iraq theatre and, by extension, to the Syria theatre appears to be aimed at Syria's Assad rather than ISIS. In taking care of the ISIS threat, the US hopes to give a decisive push to the efforts to topple Assad and undermine Iran's position in the region, given that Iran has been a supporter of Syria. This despite several foreign policy veterans, including former UK former secretary and currently MP Malcolm Rifikind, saying that an alliance with Assad is vital to the defeat of ISIS.

Listen to Atimes columnist Pepe Escobar:
There is no "Free Syrian Army" - that Qatari myth - anymore. There are no "moderate" jihadis left in Syria. They are all fighting for The Caliph or for al-Zawahiri. And still the Obama administration extracted a Congressional OK to train and weaponize "moderate rebels".

US ambassador to the UN
Samantha Power - Undisputed Queen of Batshit Craziness - at least got one thing right. Their "training" will "service these troops in the same struggle that they've been in since the beginning of this conflict against the Assad regime." So yes - this "sustained campaign" is the back door to "Assad must go" remixed.

People who are really capable of defeating The Caliph's goons don't tomahawk. They are the Syrian Arab Army (roughly 35,000 dead so far killed in action against ISIS/ISIL/IS and/or al-Qaeda); Hezbollah; Iranian Revolutionary Guards advisers/operatives; and Kurdish militias. It won't happen. This season's blockbuster is the Empire of Chaos bombing The Caliph and the ghost in the GWOT (Global War on Terror) machine. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Will McKinsey be around 50 years from now?

Lucy Kellaway, FT's management writer, suggests somewhat cheekly that the big daddy of strategic consulting may not be around 50 years from now. She comes to this conclusion after looking at a special issue of the McKinsey Quarterly meant to commemorate the journal's golden jubilee. The issue carries a piece of research that purports to look at broad trends that will shape the future:
The first is technology. Its growth will be exponential and there will be “turbocharging advances in connectivity”. Second, growth in emerging markets will continue and a lot more big cities will spring up in places we’ve hardly heard of. Finally, all over the world everyone is going to go on getting older.
If this is all that McKinsey can come up with, based on its research, Kellaway fears for its future:
Fifty years hence, McKinsey won’t exist. This is based on three trends similar to those the firm spotted. If economic activity moves to new cities in far-flung places, these are the very parts of the world where western strategy consultants tend not to flourish. The next trend is that as executives get smarter in dealing with this complex world, they will be more able to solve their own problems......

....Most important is the effect of technology. All the grunt stuff consultants do analysing markets can be done by anyone with an internet connection. The two things that people will always be better at than machines are motivating others and coming up with original ideas. Yet on neither score does the consultant look good. Strategy firms don’t do much in the way of motivation. And as for originality, if the best McKinsey can do after years of study is say that technology, globalisation and ageing will feature in the next 50 years – a robot could have come up with that in a jiffy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hindi Chini Bye Bye?

The Chinese president came, saw but could not conquer. Much of the bonhomie that PM Modi exuded in Ahmedabad seemed to evaporate once the hard reality of the standoff on the borders began to sink in- and for the PM the timing must have been particularly galling.

Xi Jinping was, no doubt, hoping that he would get India to open up to Chinese investment in a big way, providing China with a useful means of diversifying away from Japan and East Asia, without having to address the border issue. It didn't quite work out. There is talk of $20 bn of Chinese investment happening but there is reason to be sceptical.

One should not be surprised at the outcome. Negotiations can yield a fair outcome only if it happens between equals or between a powerful entity and a less powerful one who is seen as a partner. Neither condition is fulfilled in India's case. China and India remain rivals on the Asia stage so far as India is concerned. China sees the rivalry as settled in its favour given that the Chinese economy is today five times India's and China is far more powerful militarily.

The only meaningful resolution that is possible on the border issue is that India accepts China's claims on the western border (Aksai Chin) while China concedes India's claims in the east (Arunachal Pradesh). This was the deal that Chou-en-Lai offered Nehru but it was rejected by the latter. Today, China is perhaps even warier about Tibet and hence about the status of Arunachal Pradesh which borders it. (Mao had famously said that the issue in the 1962 war was not so much the border as Tibet- he thought India was upto mischief under American instigation).

So, the "talks" on the border are bound to drag on until the gap between India and China is narrowed. This means India's growth rate must overtake China's and it must stay that way for, say, five years. India's economy is bound to accelerate and China's is bound to slow down. The cross-over point is probably three to four years away, which would place it at 2017/18. Five years from then would be 2022/23. It is in the decade 2020-30 that we can expect a resolution of the border issue- provided things don't blow up in our face before that. Going by most projections, this is the decade in which India finally begins to come into its own. The rivalry between India and China will intensify in the coming years no matter that the economic relationship deepens.

The military issue for India is how to counter a vastly more powerful neighbour which has the advantage of geography in the North (since China is positioned at a higher level in Tibet)? The Economist has an interesting article on how India's strategic thinkers see the Andaman islands as a useful counter:
Hawks in Delhi who are suspicious of Chinese long-term aims say bluntly that India and its friends will acquire some sway over China only once the Andamans are treated as a “chokepoint”, a place to disrupt Chinese trade in the event of any future confrontation. Four-fifths of Chinese oil imports go through the strait. Chinese naval strategists warn of Indian designs to drop an “iron curtain” there.

Accordingly, there has been a steady build-up of naval and other capabilities centred on the islands:
An air base that opened two years ago in Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar, has taken Indian military aircraft 300km closer than before to the Malacca Strait. Other airstrips are reportedly being built or lengthened to handle big aircraft, including the Hercules transport plane. Airfields for helicopters will follow. The navy wants to deploy drones to track passing ships. New coastguard stations serve a similar purpose. Regular naval exercises with neighbours are interspersed with big international training manoeuvres hosted in the Andamans and named “Millan”. The most recent involved 17 navies in a disaster-relief exercise meant to mark a decade after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
This makes sense because among the three arms of the defence forces, the navy is the one arm in respect of which India comes close to Chinese capability especially in respect of capability to operate in the Indian Ocean.India's build-up in the Indian Ocean will be welcomed by Japan and others in East Asia. Go round the Malacca Straits and you enter the South China Sea. A book review in the Economist highlights the extent of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea: China is laying claim to a stretch of rock and coral 1500 kms away from China's coast and just 107 kms from Malaysia's:
The Chinese nine-dash line is claimed also by Taiwan, as the descendant of the “Republic of China” whose mapmakers produced it. It sweeps through the “exclusive economic zones” asserted under UNCLOS by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines is challenging its legal validity. But even if it wins, UNCLOS cannot adjudicate on sovereignty over islands, rocks or shoals. And China will ignore it anyway.
America's famed 'pivot' towards Asia is dictated by this display of Chinese assertiveness and the need to counter it. Japan and East Asia are not quite equal to the task. The US may be stretched in undertaking this exercise alone. That's where India and Indian naval strength come in. The US has an interest in bolstering India so that it can be a more useful partner to itself. PM Modi must see this more clearly after the Chinese president's visit. The strategic partnership between India and the US, started by Vajpayee and continued by Manmohan Singh, will be carried forward by Modi although the last years of the Obama regime may not see the proper fructification of it. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

National Airlines: Air India has plenty of company

Air India is not the only national airline being kept afloat by government money. There are plenty of others around the world, the Economist reports- and the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines is not the only one. Poland's national airline received $200 mn from the government. Italy's carrier, Alitalia, was bailed out by recently Etihad, the Gulf airline, taking a 49% stake. Indeed, national airlines that are doing well are exceptions:
The thriving airlines of Singapore and Ethiopia, and the Gulf carriers, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways, all benefited from government money but have been allowed to operate as commercial enterprises with minimal interference. Such entrepreneurial thrust is rare. Elsewhere, inexperienced cronies often dominate management. State employees frequently travel free. Many carriers are obliged to maintain loss-making domestic routes to please politicians. Olympic Airlines was forced to deliver newspapers for a pittance to keep the country’s press barons happy. The Greek national carrier went to the wall in 2009.

The reasons for national airlines doing badly are common: overstaffing, poor management and strong unions. Air India, I would imagine, is in a slightly different category. Its financial problems are because of excess debt incurred by an aircraft-buying binge during the tenure of Praful Patel as civil aviation minister. The problem is not overstaffing or operational inefficiency. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Grade inflation in Ivy League colleges

Grades and grade point averages at Ivy League colleges mean less than they did before, the Economist reports :

In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A........Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.
An earlier piece in the journal takes a rigorous look at whether grade inflation is 'inflation' at all:

.... “inflation” in grades ought to mean that work of a given standard would be awarded an ever higher grade, year by year. The highest permissible grade would therefore have to keep rising: A this year, A-star the next, A-double-star and so forth thereafter, in a ceaseless procession of non-improvement. Because in reality the top grade is fixed, the process is not so much grade inflation as grade compression. This is worse: a distortion in relative prices is more confusing than a uniform upward drift. Grade compression squeezes information out of the system. At the limit, when all Harvard's students get As all the time, the university's grades will yield no information whatsoever. 

Faculty settle for higher grades for students because it makes their job easier, it flatters students and students may return the flattery by giving faculty good grades in their feedback. But grade inflation does interfere the 'signalling' that university education is supposed to be provide employers. One answer could be that employers will find their own ways to distinguish amongst students by using group discussions, case analyses, interviews - and recommendation letters from professors. But the last, as the Economist points out, could mean more work for profs. Better that they devote more energy to having a suitable distribution of grades.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Outsourcing whistle blowers- and boards?

Sebi's modified Clause 49 of the listing agreement, which takes effect from October 1, provides for the creation of a whistle-blower mechanism in companies. There are many issues that employees face in blowing the whistle unethical actions or violations of the law. Is it safe to report such things? If the MD is involved, whom do they report to? Will the complaint be acted upon?

A report in BS mentions the possibility of outsourcing whistle-blowing services. Then, perhaps, employees will face safer. Maybe. But who will the third party report to? The Compliance Officer, the MD or the Board? And who hires the third party? If the MD is unhappy with a hyper-active third party, what prevents him from terminating or not renewing the contract?

We are assuming here that all violations take place without the knowledge or consent of the MD. This may not be true in all cases. And if the MD himself is reported about or even a board member, should the third party not be bringing such cases to the attention of the regulator? In short, outsourcing of whistle-blowing needs to be carefully thought through with specifications of which matter should be taken to which authority.

In the Economist, Schumpeter raises the possibility of outsourcing the board itself.  The company would hire a professional services firm to provide board services. The professional firm would find the best directors. This eliminates the problem of self-dealing in companies, namely, management selecting board members convenient to itself. Competition among service providers of this kind would ensure that companies get the best service at competitive rates.

Sounds attractive but I can see several problems. Who will evaluate the performance of the board? The management, I guess. If management finds the board too inconvenient, it will simply not renew the contract. Secondly, if an outside firm is to provide such services, it may prove expensive relative to a company finding its own board members (although the fee should still be affordable for large companies). Thirdly, conflicts of interest could arise where an outside firm is providing boards to several companies.

If the idea is to distance board selection from the management, it would be simpler to just increase those involved in nominating members. Give large institutional investors, lenders, small investors and employees all the right to nominate one or two members each. Don't leave the selection entirely to management.

Incidentally, for public sector companies, such outsourcing already happens in a way. Board members are selected by the Bureau of Public Enterprises with inputs from the concerned ministries. Management at PSUs does not select board members. But here, it is the government as owner that is using its own agency to select the board. The job is outsourced so far as management is concerned but it is not outsourced where the principal investor is concerned. And the question of paying a commercial fee for board services does not arise.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

What to do with failed banks?

Governments in the US and Europe have set their faces against bailouts of failed banks following the crisis of 2007- the Dodd FranK Act in the US prohibits such bailouts hereafter. Yet, as an article in the FT asks: what alternatives do we have?

A time tested-alternative, the author points out, was to merge a failed bank with a strong bank. Banks are now finding out that this can be costly for one reason or another. The huge fine that BofA has had to cough up has to do with the problems at Merrill Lynch and Country which it acquired in 2008 and these problems happened before the merger. This is going to deter future acquisitions and mergers because the amount of due diligence will take too long and will be too costly.

The other alternative, getting banks to prepare living wills  that will document an orderly winding up of a bank when it fails, is proving unworkable so far- in the US, the regulators have rejected living wills prepared by US and European banks. It's no use asking for banks to have contingent capital- this will be very costly and it may not suffice.

So, governments will have no recourse against bank failure other than bailouts. The only answer, which I have urged repeatedly, is to ensure that the problem is manageable when it happens and that is to limit bank size as a proportion of GDP. No policy maker or regulator is willing to touch this political hot potato.

Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana

The government's financial inclusion has the mighty backing of the PM. The early success in getting  in 1.5 crore accounts on the first day is no small measure to the PM writing directly to bank heads and (I believe) to lakhs of bank officers.

It is also better thought through than some of the earlier schemes. It's not just about creating deposit accounts- that doesn't attract people or make money for the bank. There is a loan product (overdraft of Rs 5000), an accident insurance policy for Rs 1 lakh and a life insurance policy of Rs 30,000, all of which are revenue generating. The public sector system is also better geared up today thanks to the experience it has had with banking correspondents and mobile technology.

There are problems on the ground. An important problem is multiple accounts being created with different banks. This has to be sorted out. Then, there are problems of communication. Many poor have queued up because they have been told that they stand to be paid Rs 1.05 lakh!

My analysis of the potential benefits of the scheme in an article in the Hindu, A big bang reform that may be spot on.