Archive for the ‘Technology’ category

Blunt Regulatory Instrument

February 20, 2009

Clusterstock decides to bludgeon the whole thought of regulators beginning intensive reviews of banks. Although they don’t do it themselves–the post essentially highlights a quotation from Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. The post there (at NC) makes this statement:

In the early 1990s, when Citi almost went under, it had 160 bank examiners working SOLELY on its commercial real estate portfolio (Citi has a lot of junior debt against buildings that turned out to be see-throughs).

I would welcome reader input … but it is pretty clear 100 people and a few weeks (or even a few months) is grossly inadequate for a bank the size and complexity of a Citigroup. Citi has operations in over 100 countries. All 100 examiners can do is make queries along narrow lines, and work with the data presented. This scale of operation won’t allow for any verification or recasting of data. There isn’t remotely enough manpower.

And do you think these examiners are in any position to assess the risks of CDS, CDOs, swaps, foreign exchange exposures, Treasury operations, prime brokerage, to name just a few? I cant imagine US bank examiners have much competence in FX risk (Citi trades in a lot of exotic currencies, too), and that’s one of the easier to assess on the list above.

(Emphasis mine.)

Now, let’s be honest, this seems like a pretty simple claim to make: there’s so much going on, how can 100 people really analyze a complex institution? Well, I’ve never heard of a “proof by question” so I’ll assume there’s some sort of reason behind this claim. I also wonder what people who make this claim think of management’s ability to understand and analyze the positions of the firm. Surely there are many fewer than 100 members of senior management who make decisions affecting the entire firm. Can these people actually understand the ship they are steering? Here, I think we can make a stronger, more substantiated claim: history supports the answer of “no.” When Chuck Prince, Stan O’Neil, Dick Fuld, Ken Lewis, and Jimmy Cayne would get on earnings calls and talk to analysts about their comapnies’ workings and risk exposures, we all learned they didn’t know what they were talking about. The predictions turned out to be wrong–they had exposures they didn’t know about and did an extremely poor job of disclosing. So, having 100 people, less focused on all the fluff (P.R., dealing with analysts, managing egos, staff turnover, the decor of the firm, meeting with clients, etc.) can only give an improved understanding of the firms.

It’s important to make some further distinctions. First, the bank regulators have no purview over the investment bank, at all. As a matter of fact, banks go through a lot of trouble to ensure that there is no cross-pollution between these sorts of entities for exactly this reason, they don’t want investment banks to be regulated according to bank rules and regulations. Anyone who has ever heard the term “bank chain vehicle” or “broker dealer entity” knows what I’m talking about. Nothing in the article indicates that bank regulators will be going into broker dealers and breaking them down beyond, possibly, what has already been ringfenced and moved to the bank chain. Further evidence in support of this is when a regulator in the article specifically refers to “Tier 1 capital,” which is purely a bank metric. I’ll re-assert my belief that larger banks that have received aid due to issues in their broker dealer (Citi and BofA) will most likely have their troubled assets subject to the same scrutiny JP Morgan’s banking operations or a large bank like Fifth Third Bank will endure.

Let’s also not forget that bank regulators have a very different relationship with the institutions under their purview than securities and investment banking regulators. For example, the OCC and other bank regulators actually have personnel that are housed within the institutions. Securities regulators, by contrast, get reports and speak with compliance people and lawyers at investment banks. Personnel at investment banks are actively discouraged from speaking with S.E.C. staffers, for example, without being chaperoned by other people and without being pre-briefed. While I doubt this is how things continue to operate, it shows a huge difference in what sort of head start these regulators likely have in understanding these banks already.

One also needs to consider the advances in technology (since the 1990’s, referenced above) and the fact that government staffers have poured over the books of these firms several times now. Given all this information, it seems that someone needs a better argument than “It’s clearly very hard!” to show that this new regulatory scrutiny can’t get a handle on the problem, let alone that regulators aren’t able to make better decisions with the information they will gain.

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Citi: Breaking Up is Long Overdue (And Hard to Do Right)

January 15, 2009

Well, the Citi is burning… or breaking apart at least. Honestly, this has all been rehashed so much, I’ll not even bother citing where I have learned these basic facts and figures. First, though, I will say that Deal Journal‘s coverage has been great as has Alphaville‘s coverage. And, as usual, Felix is translating for us. Read all the coverage there (in between catching up on your reading).

The Facts

So, as is my usual M.O., let’s start with what we know.

  • Smith Barney is going into some odd and very complicated joint venture. In an epic win for branding, it will be called “Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.”
  • Citi’s private bank (focused on people with net worth of $10 million and up) and brokers who are housed within Citibank branches will not be part of the joint venture. Morgan Stanley’s franchise focusing on high net worth individuals, analogous to the Citi Private Bank, will indeed be part of the joint venture.
  • Citi is looking to slim down it’s operations, seemingly across all product lines. Businesses rumored to be “on the block” include risky consumer finance businesses (Primerica and CitiFinancial), private label credit card business (credit cards issued by Citi, but branded by another company, like a retailer), and proprietary trading.
  • Many structures are contemplated. Seemingly what will happen is another entity will have all those businesses transferred into it until each can be sold.

The Situation

Okay, seems clear. Now, what can we deduce from this?

First, the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney transaction will be an absolute and total nightmare. I predict the level of success will be somewhere between Merrill’s acquisition of Advest (disaster) and Bank of America’s acquisition of U.S. Trust (moderate success). Why do I believe this? Well, let’s look at what the joint venture creates: a massive, co-branded entity with business lines focused on high net worth individuals and, separately, more traditional clients of full-service brokerages. Also, this behemoth is responsible for selling both Citi and Morgan Stanley products! Morgan Stanley controls the entity and is left with no business lines that overlap with the venture. Citi retains brokers housed in their retail branches and it’s private bank, both direct competitors to the joint venture. Well, that hardly seems logical… To sell a business but still keep enough fragments of it to have to maintain the same infrastructure, support staff, and organizational complexity as if it wasn’t sold–things like stock trading, account processing, compliance, client account management, and relationship management software are all required no matter how many brokers you have.

Now, Citi further complicates it’s own dismantling with respect to the Smith Barney transaction because, well, it’s not east to answer the question, “Which advisers are part of Smith Barney?” For years Smith Barney has been hiring away brokers who focus on high net worth individuals but didn’t want to be part of the private bank–these teams had a structure and style all their own. These teams also use the private bank’s platform and infrastructure. Where do these brokers go? With the joint venture or to the private bank? They need access to products and services which will not be part of the joint venture (but which might be duplicated by Morgan Stanley, although I doubt it). I don’t know where these teams go, and I’d be 97% sure Citi doesn’t know (and Morgan Stanley is, most likely, not aware of the issue).

Just to summarize, we see that Citi has created an entity it intends to compete with and which diminishes their distribution capabilities and other value of their remaining businesses, while not diminishing any of their infrastructure needs.

Next up, we have the dismantling of the mothership–everything that isn’t Smith Barney within Citi. Let’s first note that the infrastructure argument from above applies here, it seems like no business line is going to be cut, merely focused. Although, there are probably still some sort of cost savings here because these franchises rumored to be spun off have always been marred with issues due to the lack of integration. For example, it’s been reported that CitiFinancial lives on it’s own systems and isn’t integrated in any way with other consumer businesses.

Mundane details aside, though, who is going to buy these businesses? In this market, when you cherry pick the worst businesses and try to sell them who is buying these businesses for anything but rock-bottom prices? Further, if you don’t sell the businesses A.S.A.P., then you’re still at risk for the losses. I’ll say that I don’t see the value in identifying to the world the businesses you are about to neglect–totally demoralizing the employees and hitting productivity and profitability hard–before you’re ready to actually dispose of those businesses. Further, why would anyone buy the businesses Citi had that were under-performing all these years? It’ll be interesting to watch how they position these “assets” for sale. Will they admit the problems and put those in front of potential buyers as immediate ways to increase value?

Two last points to be made, both about the investment bank.

  1. Citi is spinning off the assets guaranteed by the U.S. Government. What will that do to the financial status of the government’s investment?
  2. Citi is said to be shutting down all proprietary trading businesses. Anyone who has been watching knows that those businesses are either the few remaining revenue generators or have dismantled themselves long ago. And some, like Metalmark or the hedge fund that hadn’t launched or began operating yet (but was founded by Morgan Stanley alums), were clearly acquired at top dollar.

Further, this means Citi is going to drastically scale down it’s trading operations. When one is merely an order taker, and cannot use the firm’s capital, there is a very limited upside. You have turned a white collar professional into the best paid grunt ever. While some Citi traders clearly deserve this, it’s not clear that a complete strategy change won’t kill Citi’s sales and trading operation totally.

The Elephants in the Room

After all this, Citi still has some big issues that will challenge it’s ability to operate effectively going forward. Some of these are holdovers from my earlier issues with Citi

How is Citi going to deal with the politics, infighting, legacy technology issues, and fractured culture? These, I would argue, are the real sources of the tens of billions in writedowns. No effective risk management. No sense of responsibility. No trust in management. No ability to even see all the risks on the books.

Why won’t Citi need more capital or have to deal with further catastrophic losses? Especially with these assets being de-emphasized and starved of capital.
I have yet to hear a god answer, really, about why the steps beyond the Smith Barney transaction are even newsworthy. Until something is sold or shuttered, it’s all financial engineering and corporate legal maneuvering.

I guess we’ll see…

The Financial Markets Stabilization Act We Should Have Seen

October 14, 2008

This comes from a comment I left on Barry Ritholtz’s “Bailout Plan Open Thread” the other evening. The basic premise is that the “Bailout Bill” as we know it basically says we need to go out and “lift” the street out of toxic crap. Then, the world will be better. It’s at least a bit less like the Underpants Gnomes in the sense that the toxic crap and the freezing up of the credit markets are linked… However, here’s the plan we should see if we, as taxpayers, really want our money going to help us.

1. Purchase only loans or securities that have the right to control loans directly or modify loans. The magic of the C.D.O. is that it’s backed by things that are backed by other things. So, if I buy some sub-prime–backed bonds and C.D.O.’s backed by those same bonds, I’m buying two securities being affected by the same loans. Just buy the loans. With the loans being controlled by the government, they are now free to…

2. Recast all delinquent loans to be much longer, have lower interest rates, and be much harder to abuse. Guess what interest rate you get on a forty year mortgage?  A lower one! Why? Because the duration is much higher. Why? If I make five basis points per year over the life of a forty year loan I’m making more money than if I earn five basis points over the life of a thirty year loan. Thus, the interest rate where I make the same amount of money should be lower on the forty year loan. The government doesn’t even need to smash any potential profits to make loans more affordable.

3. Offer financial institutions two options: sell the government’s bailout fund loans or securities at the price the government offers to purchase them at, or sell them at their mark and give the government equity. Why? Because if the bank isn’t willing to sell at a reasonable bid, furnished by the government, then their mark is over-inflated and they are trying to avoid an adverse hit to earnings–the government should receive more compensation for bailing out the bank. This should be applied to each position one at a time–no securities should be purchased in aggregate, that’s too easy to game. As a matter of fact, that’s how sub-prime worked to begin with: pools of loans got more and more barbelled and the bottom loans defaulted. On average they were normal, in reality they were crappy enough to break the securities. Oh, and the equity should have voting rights. Of course, there are questions to be answered.

4. Lend directly to people and small businesses. If the economic fears are all about the seizing up of the credit markets, we should be able to fix these problems by lending to those that live and die by financing. Create very strict standards for qualifying for these loans. FICO and income requirements, unlike sub-prime loans had. For businesses, underwrite loans to actual income and asset levels and only lend very conservative amounts of leverage.

5. Immediately raise capital requirements across the board. As Steve Davidoff notes (Lesson #4 when one follows that link), when you need to raise capital the most, you can’t. He concludes, as I have before, that this is a wonderful argument for raising capital requirements. Also, less levered institutions are more sound in general–there is more room for error. And, as one could guess, the competitive “flavor of the day” businesses, like C.D.O.’s and sub-prime, are much more levered because financing these products is viewed as a way to win business. This is why the institutions with cheap balance sheet are experiencing huge writedowns due to counterparty exposure with financing arrangements. Citi disclosed writedowns of  billions in warehouse lines where C.D.O. issuers were holding bonds with nearly no equity, on Citi’s balance sheet.

6. Required compensation reform. It’s well documented, conjectured, and even assumed that Wall St.’s compensation scheme is to blame for a lot of the mess we’re in. Swing for the fences and jump ship to another bank if it doesn’t work. That’s what it seems the most recent round of large bonuses for executives and traders that caused this problem were following. It’s simple, if you need money from the American people, you sign on to these reforms. Otherwise one might encounter a moral hazard due to government subsidized capital. Honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with an onerous set of restrictions and requirements for paying people exorbitant sums of money.

7. Immediate and broad consumer protections and consumer financial product reform. Rather than have banks start to do whatever they want to reduce their risk (I’ve heard reports of people with home equity lines in good standing paying their bill one day late and having the entire line canceled) require they treat their consumers fairly. Completely restrict the ability for banks to raise rates on things like credit card debt–to retroactively increase rates on existing debt is ridiculous in the first place. In an economy driven by spending and credit, for better or worse, putting consumers further at risk of defaulting on their obligations is stupid. Eliminate binding arbitration of consumer debt–just invalidate it completely, retroactively. I would prefer this practice be eliminated altogether, but if we’re keeping to the topic at hand I’ll only put forth that proposal. Lastly, put strong disclosure requirements in place for all consumer debt products, including new loans or recast loans. Require institutions to show the annualized rate, over the life of the loan, if interest rates rise 2%, 4%, 5%, and if the forwards are realized. Require large print, plain English disclosures. Some people will say Im trying to babysit people, but, honestly, how can one argue against requiring banks tell their customers basic information about their loans? Right, one can’t.

This is what we should have gotten to both get the economy and markets moving in the right direction and ensuring the confidence in institutions and consumers are both restored. Just my opinion..

I’ve Finally Done It

August 11, 2008

Ok, everyone, this will be quick. Sorry for the recent slowness in posting, I injured my hand and it’s difficult to type … should be back to normal in a month or so.

However, I’m now on Twitter. Find me on there at http://twitter.com/DearJohnThain. I’ll try to post there when I can–even I can muster 140 characters.

Build an Investment Bank: Technology

July 17, 2008

(As the first in this series, I’m trying to use construction terms to “build” our investment bank… we’ll see if it adds or detracts.)

The Foundation

As we begin our journey to build our very own investment bank, I’m going to make a few statements that people “in the know” will find both surprising and, in hindsight, very obvious. The topic, as the title states, is technology. Now, here are the statements:

  1. A major contributing factor to the way banks did business, especially in the businesses that contributed the most to banks’ current  problems, was their lack of technology.
  2. Credit default swaps, in all their glory, had most of their issues rooted in technological inadequacies at various institutions.
  3. A large portion of the cost structures at investment banks are due to a lack of technological heft.

I know, these seem outrageous. However, as anyone who has worked at a few different firms will tell you, there is a massive difference between a firm with good technology and bad technology. Let me tell you a simple anecdote: When very senior executives at a firm called down to the managers in charge of securitized products, they asked for the current marks and a summary of the various exposures “on the books.” It took about ten people three days to cull through all the various positions, put marks on them, model them, and put a concrete value on them. There wasn’t time to break down exposures by anything but the most trivial categories. Now, why this end product was acceptable is a different issue, but it should be clear that an effort of this magnitude shouldn’t be necessary to answer questions so totally basic in the context of running a multi-billion-dollar (although now with fewer billions) financial institution. A corollary: If it takes you several days to enumerate the positions your area has, you don’t know what it is yourself.

Now, when I speak of technology, I’m really speaking of the specialized systems and solutions used to tackle business issues, and not really the “desktop support” kind of technology. The systems that manage risk and positions, handle accounting, maintain an integrated analytics platform, deliver research and other products internally and externally, manage the human resource functions of the firm, and otherwise grease the wheels of capitalism.

The Blueprint

Our technology plan will have a few different components…

Structural Frame 1: Whether our theoretical investment bank is a startup or an established entity, the technology at the core will be home grown.

Structural Notes: Hiring consultants to stitch together purchased solutions and legacy systems is unacceptable. Technology, in order to be most effective, needs to be responsive. When a trading desk needs to run its business, and the system provided is insufficient, then it’s an unacceptable solution, and things will be done manually. Remember synthetic CDOs? Remember the ABX and credit default swaps on sub-prime bonds? Would it surprise you to know that at many major investment banks there was a manual component involved with every single contract and trade? The systems weren’t able to handle these instruments, and these businesses scaled up at a rate that was untenable. Also, there were no analytics available for these products. Businesses bought third party solutions for modeling and analytics, but those didn’t integrate or scale, so all the marks and risk numbers used to compute capital needs and P&L were merely estimates as these businesses were growing the most.

Let that sink in. Is it any wonder the senior managers didn’t know, before it was too late, what the actual exposures were? Had these firms built an integrated set of systems instead of buying a patchwork of specialized programs to solve the most current problem, these issues would not have been nearly as bad. I won’t even tell, in detail, the story about how, years ago, the system for trading credit default swaps at one bank was so difficult to use that they only created one identifier for GM and GMAC, not distinguishing between the two at all. But, when they were both on the brink of being downgraded to junk, but GMAC was de-coupled from GM, I wonder what kind of fun it was to rummage through 5- to 8-year-old confirms trying to match thousands and thousands of trades with the exact entity? Costly? Absolutely. Avoidable? Double absolutely.

On another note, an investment bank need not be innovative, but if it isn’t, then it should be able to mimic innovations quickly. Reporting to management, having an accurate record of transactions and various changes to the firm’s balance sheet, the ability to run various analyses on various products, and other, more basic, reporting functions (not even mentioning compliance and regulatory functionality) are all things that should be implementable once something new hits, and the only way to make these kinds of incremental changes is to build, not buy. A business as complex as an investment bank shouldn’t be reliant on outside parties to build software vital to their business–both from a cost standpoint and from a delay-until-completion standpoint. Further, the procurement process takes months!

Structural Frame 2: The technology part of the organization will not be a monolithic standalone bureaucracy.

Structural Notes: Simply put, technology (the people or business unit) needs to be vested in the process of making a business more profitable. Rather than taking on the normal support role mentality of, “If I say ‘yes’ then I might be wrong and held accountable, so I will say ‘no.'” The best way to do this is to not have technology be its own portion of the organization. Allowing technology to have a seperate seat at the table–or, worse, report into some catchall support person–only contributes to creating a centralized process for technology decisions. Centralizing technology decisions for many businesses with different needs creates unnecessary layering and wedges a huge management structure between the people doing the actual work and the people who are using the product and paying for it.

The final plan, I believe, would be to have as many technology people as possible integrated into the physical workspace of the people that utilize their work. Have investment banking developers sitting amongst investment bankers. Have the developers that build trading applications sitting with traders. The reporting structure should be a matrix of sorts–senior technology managers should report into a business whose technology needs are distinct from other businesses (atomic, perhaps is a better word) as well as a more senior technology person. In essence, people working in technology would be ingrained with the thought that they are there to help–the business unit would be setup as the client and the technology super-structure would be more for managing the processes. Obviously when the business is viewed as the client, technology managers are incentivized to get the businesses what they want, and when the people (both doing the work and in charge of liaising with the clients/business) are integrated (and can see the working environment of their clients and usage of their products) a lot of inefficiency and “lost in translation” moments are avoided. Senior managers really need to think of their business as including technology instead of interacting with it. This is highly important and is much more likely with a structure like I’ve proposed. Also, the closeness will just yield some more technologically savvy people and even encourage people to move between the two “worlds.”

Structural Frame 3: The people who are hired for technology roles will be of a high caliber and will be under a compensation regime and in an environment that sets big technology companies to shame.

Structural Notes: This shouldn’t be a hard line of reasoning to follow, but in general the difference between firms that “get it” and firms that don’t is how they recruit. Having an engineering background, I was recruited for I.T. from a very good school for that sort of thing by a few banks. Those banks have a high correlation to both still being around and surviving the mortgage mess with the smallest scathing in their peer group. I know several people who have told me that some other firms, one that haven’t been so lucky, have absolutely ridiculous and incredibly stupid policies for recruiting technology people. Most notably, one Manhattan firm recruits from local state schools almost exclusively–this is done so that the students they recruit can work part time during their senior year of college. No school in the top fifty or so participates. If one had to draw a grid, and rank various factors as to how important they are, the program I have just mentioned is the most ridiculous, stupid, and demonstrating a complete lack of critical thinking skills (or, for that matter, basic grasp of the business and reality) of the programs I have heard of or encountered. The people responsible for it have all moved on and the firm has suffered greatly from it’s underinvestment in technology.

So, to recruit good people you need a draw. To be honest, most graduates don’t fully grasp the concept of upside or career path–especially not ones in I.T. This makes it simple to get them, just offer a bigger number for the compensation in the first year. While this would work, it should be clear that this won’t help make them much more productive than the average technology drone in an investment bank. Giving technology employees a compensation structure that matches the businesses they are supporting is, in my view, a great solution. Obviously there would be more stability, but there should be a linking of incentives to the business and an interconnectedness in how they think about how technology and the problems facing the business. They should also have an incentive to be proactive and try to advocate solutions to problems they see instead of waiting for others to focus on them–this contributes greatly to becoming a nimble organization.

As for work environment, whenever possible, for groups not truly linked to a single business, like infrastructure groups and the web development team, my focus would be on building a start up-like atmosphere. The marginal cost of things like free coffee, free food, and some extra square footage for odd amenities is insignificant in relation to the quality of the work produced by the people snatched from places like Microsoft and Google versus a lower caliber of student culled from whatever lower-tier school(s) happens to be nearby. When you know your competition and what they offer that you do not, it’s very easy to compete: just offer what they offer. For things that aren’t as timely and linked to a knowing how a certain business runs, there is no problem in creating a lifestyle and work ethic that is free-form as long as it meets goals and needs of the firm. (Note: This isn’t my unique idea. A certain investment bank with a strong brand does this sort of thing already… but I did think of it before I knew that!)

Structural Frame 4: Technology, especially experimental or new technologies, should be used to try to create, or even drive, value.

Structural Notes: This is more a philosophy than an actual directive, but it’s important to taking a firm’s strategy on technology to the “next level.” There is a massive body of knowledge within a firm that is lost everyday due to a lack of effort. Usually the solution is to put humans somewhere and have them manually type in numbers or perform mundane tasks to get this working smoothly. Not in our investment bank! Let me furnish you with an example. The corporate bond market works in an unusual way: traders send around “runs” or lists of bonds with quotes of where they are willing to buy and sell bonds via Bloomberg’s messaging system–they are generally free form text. Why do they do it this way? It’s quick and easy. The firm I worked at didn’t make any effort to collect these pricing levels and store them somewhere. However, for publishing strategy reports, helping the desk find trade ideas based on historical relationships, calculating risk metrics, and any other number of things, this data would have been vital. Technology can easily help to store, warehouse, and serve these sorts of datasets (readily available from the market but unstructured) and help the organization as a whole improve its efficiency. This is just one example, but it serves to illustrate a point that is extremely common in an investment bank–lots of things require information that no one keeps but was readily available. Technology can drive value for lots of internal things by helping to solve problems like this. And, honestly, there are too many things that are out of one’s control not to have an organized and structured solution to the simple things that can be fixed.

Another note on technology, however, is that as the Web innovates social behaviors and collaboration those technologies should be actively examined as potential solutions to problems an investment bank would face. For example, lots and lots of information is needed when talking to a client. Getting good market “color” that everyone can see, and that is available, consistent, and easy to find is important. Perhaps a series of blogs could be used to ensure the delivery of this content is made as efficient as possible. One way I added value at my firm was by knowing as many people as possible. When liquidity started becoming an issue, the people I spoke to on the desk that funded banks in the LIBOR-based funding market explained what was the situation and we were able to assess if we thought this warranted a change in our positions or business in general. If that desk had a blog where they posted color throughout the day and the firm had an easy way to deliver this information to all of its employees, perhaps this could have helped people develop a more specific view on the market and notice some irregularities leading to the current crisis. Could Wikis be used effectively? I’m sure that they could. If it was institutionalized to have an up-to-date knowledge base within the firm, and it was made a priority to keep those things updated, nuances and details on complex transactions could be documented. People could avoid falling into the same traps or having to research the same issues other already have. These are just a few examples of how new technology innovations can be used to create value where it would otherwise be impossible.

Structural Frame 5: Every employee should be very comfortable with technology and make a large effort to integrate it into their work.

Structural Notes: I hate to sound like a snob, but in general, if you can’t figure out things like email and basic spreadsheets, you don’t have a lot of room left to grow. People should learn new technologies as they are available and make an effort to work more effectively. If this isn’t a priority of almost everyone in the firm, then building new systems and integrating things into their daily “workflow” is useless. Part of pushing the envelope on how new things are used means that people will have to learn how to use them. I’ve seen too many people, uncomfortable with a new system, resort to keeping their risk positions and other vital data the firm should know in a spreadsheet. Unacceptable. Now, not everyone has to “ooohhh” and “aaahhhh” over new features and technological platforms, but everyone should be asking themselves how they can use some new technology product to make more money, pitch more transactions, better monitor the firm’s risk, develop a better strategy for investing, or whatever their job entails. I don’t think this is hard, but I do think it’s important. And, with technology employees sitting with business people and understanding how they work day-to-day, the resources to figure out these sorts of things will be much more readily available than at most other firms. (See how the “structural frames” all interplay?)

The Final Inspection

As one can see, I value the little things that help people get 10-15% more productivity out of their daily routine–that’s the edge most firm’s need to excel in what they are focusing on. However, most firms poorly thought out systems and infrastructure issues, especially when it comes to technology, adds a hugely cost-ineffective layer of one-fix-at-a-time solutions that have added up. Why have a system where traders can input their own trades as they do them? Give them a paper record and hire a person, with full benefits and being paid an amount commensurate with living in New York City, to type them in. Oh, and now that the business has grown to three times to trading volume in six months, let’s hire four more people. Why have a system that allows a capital markets person to view real-time quotes in their sector or updates those quotes into a spreadsheet or presentation? Just have a bunch of analysts do it by hand. Why would you want a system that can model securitizations and CDOs and run the numbers effectively? We can have someone do it in a spreadsheet, that’s “close enough.” Although it doesn’t capture the nuanced risk factors, I’m sure defaults will never get high enough to worry about. These are the kind of solutions that, from the start, one should be thinking about. From the first instant it’s possible to fix these, they should be fixed. I think the five parts of the framework I’ve laid out will make a good plan to follow when building the technology part of our investment bank!

Build an Investment Bank: Introduction

July 7, 2008

As I hinted before, I have been thinking about this for a while. This series is going to be about taking some discrete pieces of what makes a modern day investment bank, making a choice about how that part would be setup under DJT’s tyrannical rule, and stating the case for setting things up that way. Here are some example topics:

  • Risk management and organization surrounding risk management
  • Business mixes and core competencies
  • Management structure and other nuances of configuring management roles
  • Proprietary trading / risk taking
  • Technology
  • Operations and support roles
  • Ownership / corporate structure and other things (owned by a bank or not, for example)
  • Deciding on what, if any, presence in consumer markets should exist
  • Compensation
  • Culture and approach to H.R. and other people issues
  • Reviews and performance management
  • Anything else that comes to mind

I think that feedback on other areas or how to group these would be interesting to receive. The first one of these issues I think should be tackled is technology. It’s a topic I have thought a lot about and is extremely important in figuring out how day-to-day operations occur. I hope to have this up shortly. I have lots of skeletons of these entries written about, and more thoughts, so hopefully this series will have a lot of meat to it soon.

Feel the Excitement!

May 16, 2008

Ok, I can prove the 3G Apple iPhone is coming. Here’s how:

First, we look Google trends from 2006, leading up to the actual introduction of the iPhone…

Google Trends data for iPhone in 2006

And now, mentions of the “3G iPhone” over the past twelve months …

3G iPhone mentions and searches from Google Trends

And, just to get a baseline, recent mentions are larger in magnitude (the huge red spike is obviously the actual iPhone introduction) …

See? What more does one need? The move up is even stronger than it was before the first iPhone was inntroduced.

Oh, and there’s plenty of other clues as well…