Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jamie Dimon's "Second Chance"

I honestly don't know whether to laugh or cry. This morning's Wall Street Journal piece on the front page of section C, complete with frameable cartoon of Jamie Dimon carrying a ladder, hammer and blueprints, contains enough material to do both.

My first reaction is to wonder at the paucity of capable leaders and managers which requires that the once-failed protege of Sandy Weill is called on to head a major US bank. Can there really be no better CEO for Chase than this retread? The article correctly points out that Dimon hasn't really had significant management experience in anything but cutting costs and operations, as befits a student of the now-departed Citigroup CEO.

So I guess we are to believe that a cost-cutter is now the best candidate to try to grow a company which (and I say this as a former "old Chase" staffer who has met and worked with several former CEOs of the company, including Mr. Rockefeller) has never successfully grown at a consistently superior rate without engendering serious credit problems and losses.

Without going into detail on each of the article's points regarding Chase's current business positions, let me suggest two things.

First, the management team at Chase, including it's recycled new leader, is probably not up to the task. None of the precursor banks (Chase Manhattan, Chemical, Manufacturers Hanover, JP Morgan, Banc One, First Chicago) which are now embodied in JP Morgan Chase ever attained performances which consistently placed them among the very best US financial institutions. Why should the aggregation of mediocrity change this? As my old boss and mentor at Chase used to observe, "what good would putting Manny Hanny, Chemical and Chase all together do? All you'd get is single larger mediocre bank!"

Second, the mere installation of Dimon as Chase's CEO may well indicate how meaningless the gesture actually is. Chase is but one, and third in size at that, of a new breed of financial utilities. In a world in which technology has allowed more nimble and innovative firms to outperform larger competitors, BofA, Citigroup and Chase predictably have moved to bulk up. I actually doubt it's that important who runs these shops anymore. Their CEOs probably can't profitably exercise all that much influence on such large organizations of risk-averse employees.

For example, Weill left Citigroup amidst a host of problems stemming from his leadership style. His successor, Charles Prince, is still struggling to repair the damage. I can't even tell you who heads up BankAmerica anymore. It seems such a faceless financial conglomerate.

Still, it pains me somewhat to see yet another large US corporation resort to recycling a failed executive, rather than look for fresher, more talented and creative candidates. Perhaps like voters and their elected governments, shareholders get the CEOs they deserve.

It is doubtful to me that a Dimon-led Chase will qualify as a holding among the consistently superior growth companies in my equity portfolio anytime soon.

Market Expectations for 2006

I'm not a professional economist , although I have studied economics, both micro and macro, extensively. As an equity portfolio manager, however, I believe I need to have some sense of what may affect the US equity markets in the coming year. Here is my current “back of the envelope” forecast for the coming year's equity market.

From what I have read, I expect US economic growth will continue to be decent for at least the first few months of 2006- perhaps through June. Estimates seem to indicate a range of 2.5-3%. Maybe less than prior years, but still decent. I don't think energy prices will unreasonably curtail this growth rate.

However, I suspect that by June, the prospect of the Iranian mullah-bomb will begin to affect investor psychology and dampen growth expectations. Fears of destabilized trade, a nuclear-fallout-tainted eastern Mediterranean and southern Europe, may cause market wobbles.

This will become a major drum beat for the mid-term US Congressional and scattered state gubernatorial elections. what to do about Iran? Is it another Iraq in the making? Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s probably a good thing, if you liked the way George Bush defused the outlaw menace that was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It’s a bad thing if you like Al Gore.

The worst case would be a two-year drift of a weakened Rebublican-controlled House and Senate majority, or maybe even the outright loss of the House, coupled with the increasingly-lamer-duck status of President Bush. This latter development of a split in Congressional control between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House could mark the return of semi-gridlock. Only this time, rather than be a check on the liberal agenda of Bill Clinton, it could be a brake on important foreign policy action.

It is useful to remember that Iraq tried to play with nukes by starting almost from scratch. We know Iran actually has the material, facilities and people to do this. It’s a very different and far more explicit, verified threat this time.

The silver lining may be this. Iran hates Israel and is sworn to destroy it. Israel has the implicit backing of the Democratic party, and the Democrats in particular will not want to see Israel attacked and/or destroyed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. They may surprisingly decide to back George Bush on military action to remove the Iranian nuclear threat.

If I am remotely close in my conjectures, it probably spells another anemic year for US equity markets. Uncertainty, particularly concerning global conflict, tends to have that effect. I hope I’m wrong. Or, if I am right, that the threat is dispatched quickly and cleanly, leaving the markets to rise in subsequent appreciation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Multimedia Hoopla: Google Everywhere for Everything

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm making up for lost time over the past few weeks due to the press of portfolio management-related activities. In reading my short list of blog topics, I see I was enamored with the notion of Google and the rise of the "new" multimedia.

Of course, it's sort of apropos that I am writing this in the wake of yesterday's awful tech sector bellwether earnings reports. The S&P is down slightly more than 5 points today as I write this, largely in reaction to the tech sector weakness.

However, back to my theme for this post- the hoopla over Google becoming, in addition to a titan in so many other areas, the new multimedia mogul sourcing everything.

Something about this scenario doesn't make sense to me. First, other than capital and a brand name, what does Google bring to the provision of on-demand accessible multimedia content that is not duplicable? Are not Apple, the old-line networks, Comcast, Microsoft, etc, all equally qualified for this role?

In fact, does not the ubiquity of broadband, and the accessibility of unlimited sources of media content, via unlimited websites offering said content, argue against a monolithic giant with a strangehold on "all" desirable multimedia content?

Is it not reasonable, much as with your (cable or satellite) television now, to expect people to have a clutch of favorite URLs (instead of television channels) to which they go for various movie, television, music, video, news and other entertainment content? Why would anyone expect to find everything valuable at one location?

This reminds me of the ongoing fear various pundits have always had about the current most-valuable technology company. In the past, the villains have been IBM, CDC, Xerox, Microsoft, Dell, Yahoo, and, now, Google. How much longer before Google is on the "prior" list?

If anything, this latest wrinkle in the provision of multimedia content is one of the best "quality of life" breaks the average American, nay, world citizen, has gotten in a while. This sort of change promotes liberty and individual initiative in ways undreamt during my youth in the 1960s.

CBS Redux

I have lately been busy with portfolio management activities. However, I made a note to comment on this new year's return of CBS as a listed equity issue. Viacom split, as of the new year, back into two parts again.

It seems like yesterday when Sumner Redstone went after CBS, declaring how powerful it would be to link content and distribution. Same old same old. Now it's five years later, and there he was, doddering around on the floor of the NYSE, babbling about how much value was being unlocked for shareholders by reversing what he did five years earlier.

Here's what really annoys me. If one of Redstone's lieutenants had made an error of this magnitude (excepting, perhaps, his daughter, now installed in the senior management of Viacom), that guy or woman would be history. Cashiered for wasting shareholder's money and pursuing grossly unprofitable ideas.

Instead, Sumner Redstone dictates to his shareholders that, having undone his colossal mistake, he'll still be chairman of both entities. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

As I noted in a recent post, there's not much to be done but sell the stocks if you owned them, or don't buy them if you don't already own them. Forget "corporate governance" as a relief on this one.

It just goes to show how one needs to take so much of Wall Street's sales pitches, and even those of bumbling, aging CEOs, with large grains of salt. Assuredly, they are more concerned with filling their own pockets than they are with filling yours.

Caveat emptor indeed.