An Alternate “Truth” About Jobs–Not Steve, but the rest of us working stiffs

A good friend recently sent me an email asking if I agreed with some conclusions reached by Scott Winship in a well-written piece in the Wilson Quarterly titled “The Truth about Jobs.”  Winship basically concludes that that the decline in labor force participation among men has been voluntary, aided by some changes in payments for disability and other factors, and that pay reduction relative to productivity improvements is merely a catch-up with overpayments from earlier decades prior to the ’80’s, and that, ultimately, this will come back into balance. Thus, not to worry. He makes some references to outsourcing, but concludes it has been a net benefit in terms of lower prices of goods. He ends with an important view, with which I fully agree, that skill levels are a problem for a growing segment of the population,  and we need to address that issue, specifically. This is a very brief and incomplete summary of Winship’s article, and I would suggest it is worth reading in its entirety.  I disagree with some of the conclusions which are drawn from a different view, or at least emphasis, on what has happened in the last 40+ years. I hope Winship is correct in his thoughtful and well-researched observations and his conclusions, but I am skeptical.

I think we do have a systemic jobs problem tied to demographics and the relative rise of other economies that are more easily participating in the global economy in terms of markets, intellectual contribution and the use of existing and rapidly changing technology.

Over the decades of change referred to in Winship’s analysis we have shifted into a much more global interconnected world where the movement of goods and services has been significantly enhanced via technological developments. Thus, the benefit of labor arbitrage between countries is real and possible as is labor/capital(technology) arbitrage everywhere.

For many years in the US, “outsourcing” has occurred within our borders, moving more production to suppliers which creates economies of scale and lower labor costs because the skill levels required are different.  And labor cost arbitrage still exists between geographies within the US.

As an example, while I don’t have the precise numbers, I would posit that global employment in the auto industry is up. However, required skill levels are down and, for some time, global geographical arbitrage on labor costs has existed with there being little, if any,  technological arbitrage among countries today–similar technologies are available to almost all. The last time I was in China visiting auto plants the difference in labor content between a Toyota plant in Japan and China reflected the labor cost differential with more workers and less automation on the lines in China.  As relative wages rise, the lines in China have become more automated substituting capital(technology) for labor within a framework of a newer, more efficient production system than might be found in the developed world. This is real and cannot be glossed over as having an effect on the US and other developed economies.

Winship’s dataset of men only and their wage and labor force participation numbers is also a problem. The impact on wages (for men and the total work force) has been, in part, the gender wage arbitrage that has existed, and in some cases continues to exist, between men and women, even though the skill levels are not different–some would say higher among the women. Winship mentions the wage differentials but he doesn’t explicitly incorporate it as a cause for the slower rise in men’s wages.

He points out that more men over 55 are staying in the work force. I agree with much of his analysis here which emphasizes the education levels and the desire to work, not the need. Although, I do believe there is an element of need that comes into play–the need to think about sustaining oneself and a lifestyle for a much longer period than historically has been the case. My personal anecdote is noting that my father lived to 100 and was quite active for almost all of that period. I always said to him that I would take his bad genes as long as I got the good ones. It appears that I did get both…  I have to think about what kind of life I want to lead over the next few decades both financially and actively with my mind and body. It is hard to move away from the stimulus of work (and the reward) as long as I have that opportunity.  And the opportunities appear to be there for me and others.

I think this does have a lot to do with availability of skills in that age bracket, the adaptation of that group, in general, to the new world of communication and technology,  and the recognition that productivity levels remain high, particularly among the better educated, more of whom are maintaining their health. It isn’t as automatic that as an employee ages he or she becomes less productive or less adaptable to the demands of the workplace. It helps that labor laws make it more difficult to end employment for age reasons alone.

On a separate point, as one works one’s way down the age brackets I think we are finding fewer individuals wanting to work within a formal structured work place–they are less available–, thus only the over 55 are available for those jobs. This is a big overstatement, but on the margin it is certainly the case. The use of the internet, the infrastructure in city-states and even within smaller communities leads to the availability of a more entrepreneurial approach to work and provision of services than has been the case historically—and more of this is in the cash (or grey) economy.

There has been much research trying to estimate the dollars floating around the rest of the world in an undocumented economy. There has been some recent work (U of Wisconsin– which may indicate a growing amount of that cash, more than previously estimated, resides within the US.  And, by the way, taxing that income could add $500 Billion to US governments’ revenues. More people are working than the BLS statistics pick up. Do we really believe that all the number of  long term unemployed are actually not working? But, instead,  aren’t they producing some income–maybe sufficient to sustain or even thrive?  Here’s an anecdote for you: We have all heard about companies pushing more people to part-time employment to avoid ACA rules and, ultimately reduce their costs. One of my fellow directors at a company told me that one of her clients–a national retailer–is having employees in certain states with insurance exchanges ask to be moved to part-time because the cost of insurance on the exchange will be lower than or no worse than their current costs. It makes them untethered to a company for the benefits, more mobile and flexible, and with the possibility of making up for the income at another job either on or off the books. One could make the case that the younger generations don’t view the government as doing much for them so why should they pay taxes. That is happening at a time when the ability to work off the books has risen and continues to. Just think what 3-D printing could do to that ability once it is truly operable. I attended a meeting with one of the founders of MakerBot where this was made apparent. The real discussion with him was about the grey economy.

Winship’s final paragraph re the importance of education is particularly valid and critical: People, for the most part, figure out how to survive and thrive under any reasonably open system. Their ability to maximize the thriving part does depend on skill levels, educational attainment and overcoming the systemic inequalities that exist. That does need to be a focus. The developed world has a more severe problem than the developing world as it is more difficult for good things to happen in a replacement economy vs. a growth economy. But we must do significantly better.

There is much more to be written on this topic but I do have other tasks to perform–mostly on the books :-).

Chemical Warfare: Never good but there could be a different outcome

On many levels this is out of my purview. However, in the early ’60’s I was an officer in what was then called the Chemical Corps. I spent the first year of my service running a chemical combat support platoon primarily stationed in Fort Ord, California. Then, clearly, I saluted somebody wrong, and spent two summers in the desert and the winter in between in Alaska and some other places testing various Chemical, Nuclear and Biological weapons delivery systems.  All of these were bad weapons.  I am not sure there is such a thing as a good weapon.

The Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use of chemical weapons (not biological) and calling for destruction of existing weapons went into force in 1997 after the initial discussions on the ban began in 1968.  Syria is not a signatory to the Convention.

I am not sure what a limited strike does to deal with this problem other than having, for sure, unintended consequences.  Also, are we simply saying that if conventional weapons had been used to kill 1400+ would we not care?  As I said, Chemical weapons are bad, and with a very few exceptions, the world agrees.

As opposed to more death and destruction as a retaliatory punishment, wouldn’t it make sense to use this time while Congress debates to present the fully documented case to the world, garner universal support against the use, universally demand  an apology and recompense from Syria to the families affected, and a promise not to use such weapons ever again? What is really in the interest of all in this instance? It is hard to believe that this was at the direction of Assad because of the stupidity of the action. If so, there needs to be the full mea culpa. However, if this was an attack generated and ordered within the military ranks, blame can be directed and action taken.

One cannot bring back the lives lost, nor for that matter the 100,000 lives previously lost.  However, why not turn this action into a reason for reaching a political solution as opposed to a continuation of the bloodshed using whatever weapons are available or provided.  It is in some ways an opening for the Assad regime.  More military action involving more participants will not have a good outcome.  This approach will surely sound naíve and wimpy to some.  It is one person’s viewpoint.  The killing by whatever means needs to stop.

Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post and Content (which will get even better)

I have a different view from what’s out there thus far re where this acquisition will lead.  Much of the discussion to date about this very interesting acquisition is focused on the content and the risk it will change for the worse.  One would expect this from the media since that is what they focus on.   The discussion also seems to bring in the idea of Bezos wanting this property because of the leverage it will give him in Washington.  I don’t buy that. equated it to Bezos’ other “quixotic” ventures.  Everyone, naturally,  also keeps trying to tie this to Amazon.  I think that is only valid in looking at Bezos’ managerial approach, not what Amazon itself is.  Bezos has said the focus is on the reader–understanding what he/she is looking for and providing it.  That is consistent with understanding what the customers at Amazon are doing and providing them with more of what they most likely want. The Post is not going to look like Amazon, though.  The tie-in to Amazon represents a narrow focus on what he can do and, in my view, is likely to do.  I think Bezos is interested in learning who the readers are and their behaviors  and is prepared to do that with the high quality content of the Post.

I am not so sure he really wanted to buy the other paper properties, but I doubt that the Post Company wanted to be left with any.  I think his initial focus will be on reducing costs of the back office and not touching the content side.  He can do a better job than the current management was doing.   He certainly runs a lean shop at Amazon.  I think people are missing that the Post’s digital revenues must be running close to $100mm.  Graham does deserve some credit for that.   Bezos is buying a digital stream at 2 1/2 to 3 times revenues if you give no value to the $400mm of off-line revenues. That’s pretty cheap.  Henry Blodget pointed this out in his very well written piece on the acquisition.  I also think the Post is closer to breakeven than the last 12 months indicated, given the costs included on the pension side and termination costs.  The management didn’t have a solution  how to get the profits up,  was trapped by the experience of the last 7 years and the board didn’t have the patience.  The Post has been firing content creators without looking hard enough at other ways to reduce costs making use of technology that exists on that end.  As a public company the Post Company couldn’t risk more losses.  In an interview on the Post’s own digital website Graham said there were twelve bidders and Bezos was the highest bidder.  It will be interesting to see who the other bidders were, which is info that will likely make its way out over time.  Graham would likely have had to sell to the next highest bidder and who knows who that was. He got lucky with it being Bezos, who I think is prepared to preserve the content and figure out how to monetize it better.  I wonder if he would have been able to say that another buyer was as attuned to the “values” at the Post.  Interesting that the journalist employees were “sad.”   They should have been sad if there weren’t a sale.   If I were there I would be excited about what could happen.  I think their job security has just gone up.

Bezos wrote to the employees about inventing and experimenting.   This is the classic approach to trying to figure out what the right business model is.  As a private company the Post can do this without as much worry about the short term impact.  But, as I said, I don’t think the road to profitability is that long.  I believe the Post will likely be providing even higher quality content than it has been for a while.  I also think it will likely expand from the very specific approach to its local environs to something more global, which would move it toward a bigger audience. This will be interesting and fun to watch, and, of course, it will be well covered. The media industry is the most self referential of any I know. Anything related to media is always a big story. I am looking forward to following this one.

The Economy, The Markets, Obama’s Climate Change speech and Idealab: A Podcast

I recently did a broadcast on the Hays Advantage reviewing the turmoil in the marketplace, tying it back to our outlook of last November. We also spent some time on Obama’s speech and introduction of some new regs on Climate Change. I pointed out that we need to do something as we are falling behind technologically what is happening in Germany, Japan and, to some extent, in China. I wrote about what Germany is doing a couple of years ago.  I think we would all agree that regulations have a place, but it is not the best way to deal with this issue. At some point we need to have an explicit Carbon price which allows for economic decisions within a broad framework of rules.

Kathleen Hays had visited Idealab two weeks before and we had a chance to talk about innovation and the process there as well. You might find the 20 minute podcast interesting.

The Future of Capitalism (and Commission Sharing Arrangements)

Two weeks ago I attended an all day session, “The Future of Capitalism,” put together by the the World Economic Forum (WEF) and The Forum of Young Global Leaders, with a big attendance by and assist from the World Policy Institute. While this session was under Chatham House Rules so I can’t go into great detail, it is safe to say that the general thrust of a series of wide-ranging discussions was that, in its current form, Capitalism has yet to prove it can function in a sustainable manner on a planet approaching a population of 9 billion.  There was much discussion of what could or should happen–some naive, but most quite pragmatic with some actionable steps. My favorite actionable step  was to require that CEOs, in addition to preparing their annual report to shareholders, should prepare an annual report to their children and grandchildren, describing what they do and don’t do and why, in clear understandable language relevant to these inheritors of what one would hope to be a sustainable planet.

More recently I attended a meeting where some activities in the financial world were described that may have more immediate negative impact on the Future of Capitalism. This is where Commission Sharing Arrangements (CSAs) have relevance.  A CSA is an arrangement in the investment community whereby an institutional investor does a security transaction with a broker and directs that a portion of the commission on the trade be paid out to a third party.  The third party is typically a smaller specialized firm that has provided research services to the institution. The institution has chosen to do the trade with a particular broker, usually one of the ten largest  broad-based broker-dealers (BDs), because of the belief that the BD will provide better execution at a lower commission than if the trade were done with a smaller firm. The larger BD typically has broader reach and visibility to get a larger trade done, including use of electronic trading systems developed by the BD or more accessible to the BD. In addition, the larger BD is more likely to be willing and able to commit capital to complete a trade in the event that the market place doesn’t. CSAs, a variation on soft dollar payments, that now is used with smaller BDs,  have come into vogue over the last several years, with help from the larger BDs, and already account for upwards of 30% of all commission dollars generated by institutional investors.

The above is a long explanation of what may appear to be a minor thing happening to Capitalism, in contrast to the grand ideas that came out of a WEF meeting. In my view it is not minor and has significant unintended consequences. Historically, smaller BDs have been an important part of the capital allocation and capital raising functions of the financial markets. They have provided research on smaller companies, been a part of price discovery in the marketplace through their trading desks and provided investment banking services including IPOs and secondary offerings for these companies that typically could not command the attention of the larger BDs. As institutions have elected to pay for the research by check vs trades, the ability of the smaller BDs to service these small companies as investment bankers has become problematic.  As trading becomes more concentrated among the big guys the economics are forcing many of these companies out of the trading and capital raising function and lessening their ability to hire and retain high quality professionals. The larger BDs do not step into the breach to service smaller private and public companies because the economics just don’t justify it. Thus, the capital markets business becomes more concentrated among a smaller number of bigger players. In a way, it is Capitalism at work within the financial services industry where unfettered Capitalism leads to concentration into fewer entities and, ultimately, monopoly positions.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Concentration in the capital markets affects the role of Capitalism in the broader non-financial world as well. The less apparent outcome of this concentration, is a stunting of the capital-raising function for private companies leading to more limited access to the public markets. It produces an approach by early-stage investors of less reliance on the public markets providing liquidity and more focus on the direct sale of a company. I see that working its way into the investment decision process by venture capitalists and others, and the subsequent strategic process around the growth of a small company. If the expected exit or liquidity event for the investor is a sale, that becomes a big part of the way capital is allocated to “grow” the company. It also appears to shorten expected time frames from start-up to potential liquidity. And, it leads to the creation of products as opposed to companies, with an eye on where the product would fit into the business of potential corporate buyers. It changes the nature of the skill sets at the investment banking firms from understanding and supporting functioning capital markets to advisory merger and acquisition talent. Finally, it has the insidious effect of leading to concentration and lack of innovation in the corporate world as well. A large company can survey the universe of start-ups and smaller companies and snap them up before they become a threat or to fill a gap in their skill sets or product offerings. It is no longer a “make or buy” decison. It is just a “buy” decision.  With lower odds of a smaller company ultimately getting liquidity and raising capital through the public markets, the focus internally becomes one of positioning the company for a sale to one of the behemoths in its industry. Once the acquisition takes place, I have seen, in many instances, the innovation pace slowing or in many cases just disappearing. In some instances it can actually add to the portfolio of products offered by the larger entity, but not always. Ultimately, concentration increases, stifling growth and innovation, and creating less-free markets. It then takes big government to “regulate” these entities to prevent the ultimate outcome of true capitalism–a monopoly position.

So we end up with big financial firms, big corporations and big government—most likely all too big to fail or change, but more dependent on each other for their raison d’etre and most likely less responsive to leaving a better world for their children and grandchildren.  It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not all because of Commission Sharing Arrangements, but the pace at which concentration is happening is accelerated by this small change in the way business is being done in the financial sector.

I was actually encouraged by the discussions at the WEF meeting and walked away with some hope that the upcoming generation of Young Global Leaders might actually find ways to get this right. But, the small changes which have big implications and are taking effect daily will make their job tougher.

Light and Life in Rural India

This is an old post on rural life in India and solar lighting, that I am reposting for those who have signed up recently. It is still a valid view of what is happening ( or not happening) with power and what life is like in rural India.


We spent two days in villages in the District of Udupi in the State of Karnataka meeting with our sales agents and visiting homes where the Duron Solar Home System was in use.  We were there with three of our investors who had already spent a day in Bangalore at our headquarters reviewing the business and now wanted to see the system in use in the field. We chose Udupi, since it was “only” a ninety-minute plane ride to Mangalore and another ninety-minute drive to the town. Most of the installations were within 30 minutes of the town itself.

The State of Karnataka is reasonably well electrified. One has to travel deep into the rain forests to find an area without wiring.  Almost all of our systems in this state are in homes with electricity from the grid.  However, because of the uncertainty of when power is actually available and…

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Lean In Again: Some Observations on the Comments re Sheryl Sandberg’s Great Book

In Dealbook, Professor Steven Davidoff published an interesting article, “Why So Few Women Reach the Executive Rank,” which provided a pretty good summary of what many have drawn from Sheryl Sandberg’s observations in her book. I still say everyone really does need to read her book. I would add to my admonition in my earlier post–Read the book, carefully. I would also suggest reading Davidoff’s article carefully as well.

I think one quote in Davidoff’s article is very telling– “women have to behave like men to rise to the top.” This seems to be a universal conclusion of what Sandberg is saying in her book. I think a more complete statement,  is “women have to behave like the men who are currently at the top to rise to the top themselves.”

I would posit that in many cases we have the wrong men at the top who are pretty much, across the board, producing sub-optimal performance relative to what it could be. Most corporations are operating below their potential because the culture does not allow the best talent, female or male, to rise within the organizations. Exclusion and prejudices about what constitutes a good worker or a good manager, in my view, often lead to less capable people managing parts of any organization. It is easy to identify women as a class being excluded. And there are a set of prejudices and difficult work environments that exist specifically related to women. There are also less explicit prejudices which end up excluding a set of men as well. Sandberg hints at this in her book. Organizations that minimize both these prejudices–female and male–end up with more successful women and a different set of successful men. And, I believe, a more successful business–certainly relative to their peers. We need to identify more clearly what it is about those organizations (too few in number) where this is happening.

Trying to understand what it is about the culture and the general environment in those few organizations where the presence of more women in the ranks may be an indication of that culture, might provide some clues about what it takes to create the right environment.  I am still trying to figure that out, in spite of having been part of an organization where that happened. I think we need a few professors to take on the challenge of identifying the organizations and truly figuring it out.