Friday, December 09, 2005

GM: The Agony Continues- Part 4

General Motor’s CEO Rick Waggoner’s op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday morning contained an interesting little bit of monetary policy information which almost escaped my attention, and may have eluded yours as well.

"… This ignores the fact that American auto makers and other traditional manufacturing companies created a social contract with government and labor that raised America's standard of living and provided much of the economic growth of the 20th century. American manufacturers were once held up as good corporate citizens for providing these benefits. Today, we are maligned for our poor judgment in "giving away" such benefits 40 years ago…."

Waggoner is saying that GM and other large US corporations privately monetized future promised benefits as a form of currency to lubricate and drive US economic growth. He implies that they promised wealth in order to drive more consumption on the part of the workers. He seems to be arguing that making false promises which accelerated US growth in prior decades is defensible on the basis of the end, namely, falsely promising undeliverable benefits.

Is this amazing, or what?

First, Waggoner effectively admits that corporate America has been privately creating money by issuing dubious pension promises. As if GM hasn’t had enough difficulty just being a consistently-good investment for its shareholders, it apparently dabbled in monetary policy, too.

Then, with unmitigated gall, Waggoner goes on to suggest that making pension promises which have turned out to be unaffordable was justified, because it caused workers to feel wealthier, spend a lot more money, and drive economic growth.

Maybe Rick Waggoner would be better off not speaking or writing anymore, and trying to find a merger partner for his wreck of a company, while it still has some cachet with a few buyers in some of its customer segments.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

GM: The Agony Continues- Part 3

General Motor’s CEO Rick Waggoner’s op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning is a pathetic paean to socialistic corporate policy.

Waggoner first makes a dismissive nod to the need for producing vehicles which people actually want to buy, rather than stuffing GM products with various features that still fail to address the overall demand of the driving public. The extent of his solution is found in this passage, “We will step up our performance in this regard.”

Wow. And all this time, it was so easy. Just write that you will ‘step up …performance,’ and you have it covered. No details as to how your entire heretofore ineffective creative design staffs will change overnight. Or how these people, or perhaps their replacements, will quickly produce newly-interpreted solutions for the vehicle-buying public. No, just tweak a few knobs down in the design department and you are back in the black!

But the really sad part of Waggoner’s article is the roughly one-third of it which wraps his company in the American flag. This tactic sent me to Bartlett’s for this line:

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” is attributed to Boswell in his Life of Johnson.

According to Waggoner, while GM freely entered into its pension agreements with its workers and their unions, they did it because “….(American manufacturers) were once held up as good corporate citizens for providing these benefits.” He goes on to say that these same companies are now “maligned for our poor judgement in ‘giving away’ such benefits 40 years ago.”

What Mr. Waggoner fails to realize, as apparently did his predecessors, is that his and their fiduciary duty is to GM’s shareowners, not to a faceless holder of opinions about whether a company is a “good corporate citizen.” He takes the easy way out, pleading that GM’s prior and current managements must bend to the will of public opinion regarding their status as corporate citizens.

Never mind their option to make their own case to these same opinion-holders regarding the long-term financial inviability of the agreements GM freely made. Instead, Waggoner effectively blames the social environment of the last 40 years for his company’s plight. I would opine that, if anything, this displays how inept the GM management has been for years at correctly assessing its own costs of business, and putting its shareholders first.

If this kind of scapegoating and avoidance of responsibility is how Waggoner plans to lead GM, I continue to predict that he will have a short tenure.

Productivity Wrongly-Defined

...since we are dealing with an organic process, analysis of what happens in any particular part of it-say, in an individual concern or industry- may indeed clarify details of mechanism but is inconclusive beyond that. Every piece of business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it. It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it or, in fact, on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull.

Joseph A. Schumpeter
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942

This morning on CNBC, the Squawkbox crew debated recently-revised “productivity” data for the US economy. I use quotes because I have my doubts that the popular use of the term promotes clarity of thinking, as I hope to demonstrate in this piece.

Steve Liesman spent a considerable amount of time discussing how the improved physical output of a machine would improve productivity of its worker, and also profitability of the firm using it. If only life were that simple.

As my old boss and mentor, Gerry Weiss, SVP of Corporate Planning & Development at the old Chase Manhattan Bank used to say, producing another poorly-selling Cadillac Cimarron more efficiently adds little, if any value to the US economy.

Simply put, there is a major difference between efficiency and productivity. I find most classically-trained economists make this mistake, Schumpeter’s passage notwithstanding. To understand the difference, we need to understand the “background,” as Schumpeter stated in his 1942 book.

Liesman made a common mistake in assuming that whatever that machine was producing could be sold at a market-clearing price, thus improving overall profitability and margins. However, this isn’t correct. Productivity didn’t improve from that machine’s added output- efficiency did. We only know about the physical output of the machine per unit of time or other resources- workers, maintenance expense, etc.

We know nothing about the sale price of the product into which the machine’s output goes, nor the price elasticity of the product, the demand for it at various prices, etc. These elements affect what I call the product’s, or sub-component’s “resource value productivity.” This would be the value-added to the firm of that component or product divided by the particular resource, in this case, a more efficient machine.

Confusing efficiency of output with the ability to create more value-added per unit of resource shows a lack of understanding of how economics is morphed in a company into marketing.

For example, what if the management of the firm in question has mis-estimated demand, and the newly-efficient machine is producing unwanted product? Think this is rare? Look at GM, Ford, Merck, or even a Hollywood movie studio. If GM more efficiently produces an SUV that will sit on a dealer’s lot, to be sold at deep discount, was there any productivity gain? Or was an unwanted, little-valued product made more efficiently?

It strikes me as odd that reporters on a leading business program can be so well-versed in economic theory, but miss the major difference that an advanced, consumer-driven market economy has over a production-driven economy. That difference is the need for producers in the former to get product development and price-points right, in order to sell highly-valued merchandise and services to a demanding and selective market. Once you grasp this, you immediately can grasp how production efficiencies are not at all the same thing as resource (value) productivity.

Schumpeter’s observations about the perennial gale of creative destruction makes this so. Too bad so many business people and economists recall the two-word phrase, but not the author’s deeper analysis of its implications.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Over-Compensated American Senior Management as a Source of Competitive Disadvantage

Carl Icahn gave an interview to David Faber of CNBC late last week. Many of Icahn’s remarks were self-serving and postured to support his current involvement in pressuring AOL regarding its current asset divestitures and strategy. He makes no secret of wanting Dick Parsons out. For what it’s worth, I think he is right about that.

However, what really made me sit up and take notice was Icahn’s pointed comment regarding the modern large-cap American CEO. He feels that, on average, and as a group, they are seriously disadvantaging US business relative to foreign businesses. This is a fascinating viewpoint. It echoes my own research, writing and feelings, some of which are found elsewhere on this blog.

Icahn specifically voiced concern that today’s CEOs are so over-compensated that they simply do not pay sufficient attention to maximizing ongoing shareholder wealth. In this, I totally agree ( see my recent post regarding pay-for-performance for large-cap CEOs). He feels that if this trend continues, American business will lose its competitive edge and, over time, fall victim to hungrier, more attentive foreign competitors.

With GM, Ford, UAL, Merck and TimeWarner as examples, it’s hard to argue with him. It is possible that Ricardian economics is responsible for the leadership in steel, airlines and autos going overseas.

But couldn’t these firms have accomplished what Intel has around the world, and remained competitive via global facilities and globally-sourced talent? My suspicion is that Icahn is onto something here. As superior innovative talent in other countries becomes more globally accessible and able to be leveraged, it may signal another round of American industrial restructuring to come on the order of that which we saw in the 1980s and early ‘90s.