Friday, November 04, 2005

Much Ado About Nothing

I manage a large-cap equity portfolio strategy with a selection emphasis on consistently superior growth and performance. The past 8 weeks have been anything but calm. Let’s just say I wasn’t used to seeing so many days on which my portfolio rose or fell by more than 1%.

What is comforting to me, however, is that by persevering with my positions throughout the post-hurricane rise and fall of the market, my return for the year is almost back to its peak at the end of September. At that time, its gross return was roughly 12.5%, while the S&P500 Index was at roughly 1.2%. At the trough during October, my portfolio had lost about 10%. It subsequently recovered to only a –5.4% return for the month. At yesterday’s market close, my portfolio had a year-to-date return of 11%, versus roughly .5% for the index. So sticking with my positions throughout the October sell-off was handsomely rewarded.

It would seem that, since the hurricanes hit the US Gulf Coast, economic growth was not that badly damaged, and energy prices and availability are not going to cripple demand after all. Listening to a wide variety of pundits and analysts, I was struck by how many sell-side analysts overlooked the macroeconomic forces at work to drive demand for energy. Thus, as energy companies began to be valued as if they were simply oil tank farms or natural gas tanks, rather than producing enterprises, I felt they had become undervalued and would recover. I did not sell my positions. They now have recovered.

Last week’s third-quarter GDP number, combined with this week’s retail sales results, indicate that all the hand-wringing over an economic slowdown was simply wrong. Oh, well. At least the brokerages made money by facilitating investors’ moves out of, then back into, the retail and energy sectors.

It brings to mind a favorite quote I read a few weeks ago by John Bogle, erstwhile head of the Vanguard Group. In an interview in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he opined that in most situations, an investor’s best guide in the face of volatility and uncertainty is, “don’t do something, just sit there!” I have, and it’s worked. Again.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On "Customer Advocacy"

It was with great dismay that I read a recent blurb in an alumni magazine I received from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School regarding their brand new business press’ recent publication of Glen Urban’s Don’t Just Relate- Advocate.

Dr. Urban, an MIT decision science/operations research professor, has allegedly pioneered a new form of customer relationship. It involves not merely understanding and meeting customer needs, which has typically been the province of marketing. Rather, he now espouses “advocating” for your customers, within your organization.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Let’s review the list of companies the review in the alumni magazine provides as apparently shining examples of this method’s success:

-GM (wow- can you believe this one? Someone would actually list GM as a paragon of anything but failure in marketing?)

-Qwest (another paragon of clear-sighted marketing. Their very future is now in question after losing out in the bidding for MCI)

-Intel (great chip manufacturer, but not a great producer of consistently superior shareholder wealth)

-John Deere (again, a famous name, but hardly a consistently superior producer of shareholder wealth)

Maybe I’d rather see the list of companies who refused to pay Dr. Urban’s firm, Experion, for consultation on this important new customer management philosophy.

I recall reading Dr. Urban’s work as a graduate student in marketing some years ago. My belief then, as now, is that many operations researchers have much less understanding of the marketing discipline they seek to influence than they realize. Thank goodness.

For instance, I read in the book’s review in the aforementioned alumni magazine, “He draws on new case studies to show how to align culture, metrics, incentives, and organization, driving effective advocacy throughout entire organizations.” Now, that is a chilling concept indeed. Are we to understand that GM’s current situation is a showcase of this method writ large and successfully? Or did GM not fully embrace it yet, “throughout (the) entire organization(s),” and, if not, why not?

The concept of this being totally diffused throughout an organization leaves me with one thought- who’s minding the mint? Doesn’t at least one senior executive need to be left weighing the satisfaction of customer needs by new and existing products and services with the company’s long-term profitability and return to shareholders?

I confess to being embarrassed that one of my alma maters has become so myopic. What does it matter if a company profits, and fails to provide shareholders with an attractive, competitive return? At least I’m comfortable knowing there are very few hardcore OR types in the pantheon of academic marketing gods.

No need to take advantage of my alumni discount on this soon-to-be-classic volume.

What's Up At Google?

Two things about Google interest me. The first is their stock price, and to what is that price vulnerable over time? The second is their recent, highly-visible fight with the publishing industry over Google’s plans to scan, without payment of royalties, large numbers of books into a searchable database. What is really afoot with this project?

I think that the two guys who founded google are very smart. They built a better search engine, but they realize the next great search engine is likely to surpass them, just as they dethroned Alta Vista. Yes, there actually were search engines prior to Google. A friend mentioned to me a few months ago for how little Alta Vista was ultimately purchased by some European company. It was pathetic.

I believe that the owners- excuse me, senior executives now- of Google realize that their best hope for continued consistent value, and thus wealth, creation is to become so entangled in the online habits of their customers that Google is no longer perceived as a search engine. Otherwise, they face the ever present threat of rapid decline.

Consider this. The two founders of Google probably don’t spend as much time creating new and better search procedures as they once did. Further, current students at better engineering schools across the country now have something at which to aim. By virtue of its current dominance, Google probably can’t take advantage of the next smart search engine designer’s new twist. And, to be honest, using a new search engine is ultimately as simple as going to a new website.

Thus, the rapid expansion by Google into, well, just about anything online that can tie your behavior into their brand, rather than their search engine, per se. For example, email services, instant messaging programs, a whispered foray into the remains of AOL, wifi rollouts in San Francisco, and, now, a voluminous database of searchable literary content. They must be really worried. Because very little of these enterprises, by themselves, require integrated consumer behavior. Rather, a single company offering all of them hopes they can bend consumer behavior to their version of service packaging.

Not likely in this internet and information age, is that?

As to the book scanning effort, that is perhaps the most intriguing of Google’s current projects. It is disingenuously portrayed as a simple case of Google spending it’s money, and lots of it, I would guess, to provide, for free, a database of searchable texts. What could possibly be avaricious about that?

True, their promise to provide only the undefined “snippet” of any search result is itself a loophole. And their explicit attempt to avoid securing permission to copy in a manner which, for anyone else, would require a copyright owner’s permission is worrisome. One gets the sense that they realize they have no chance of affordably tracking down the owner of every book they may scan. So, instead, they appear to be generous, allowing publishers to “opt out” on the copyright owners’ behalfs. How accommodating of Google.

But all this, I think, misses the real sizzle of this business concept. While maintaining the searchable text database as free in perpetuity, the mere ownership of this valuable trove provides for many as-yet-unspecified uniquely profitable opportunities. This is the sort of dream situation the authors of the Clayton Antitrust Act had in mind- one product is inexpensive, but is tied to another that is monopolistically controlled.

In the case of Google’s searchable database, the other, monopolistically controlled products, or services, may include: links to book sellers; extensive bibliographies of authors; access to information derived from Google’s ability to search the database in ways that are different than those it provides to free users.

The underlying opportunity in all these examples is some unspecified value-added product or service which is not the database, but is derived from ownership of the database. Particularly important, I am sure, is Google’s ownership of, and control of access to, that database. For instance, you don’t see Google, at this time, offering to share funding and control with, say, Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft. No, they, or some of them, are now purported to be in their own discussions with publishers, to accomplish similar ends to that of Google.

As a closing note, this is now reminding me of two other investment “opportunities” of the last 150 years. Those are, American railroads of the late 19th century, and airlines in this century. British investors lost tons of money buying equity in fledgling US railroads during the late 1800s. The net cumulative cashflow of the airline sector, from birth to now, I have read, is negative. Which is to say, just because seemingly smart, well-heeled corporations and people throw wads of money at a concept doesn’t actually mean it will profit them. You and I may well enjoy a phenomenal benefit of online text search and procurement in the years ahead, at absolutely no cost to ourselves. And several seemingly invincible, or at least pretty powerful, technology titans will be poorer for our pleasure.