Posted tagged ‘opportunity’

Time For The Next Generation of Executives

February 4, 2009

Dear Shareholders:

I am writing to offer my name into consideration for the executive positions within your company–specifically, the Chief Executive Officer–and hope you will agree I am the perfect fit. I am well educated, resourceful, analytical, ethical, and decisive. However, this mix of qualities can be found in a myriad of candidates. What I would bring to your executive suite is much more valuable in these troubled times.

Before I elaborate, let me deal with an issue that I’m sure is at the forefront of your mind–my expectations for compensation. I am quite aware that there is an eminent move by the Obama administration to limit executive pay, and this is one reason I am currently writing to you. I realize that the common perception is, in the words of James F. Reda, “[that] $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus.” I wholeheartedly support others, who also seek this position, declining to be considered because of the meager pay. As a matter of fact, I will take the position for $400,000, if offered. Further, I encourage you to pay me three-quarters of that amount in equity. The reason I would suggest this is closely linked to my qualifications for the job, beyond the aforementioned.

First, I promise to be accountable. In these troubled times transparency is of the utmost importance. Companies’ leaders have to answer to their shareholders, their directors, their employees, and even, in some instances, the government. Uncertainty and the loss of confidence has caused the collapse of many firms. Too many executives have skated through the crisis by blaming problems on their predecessors (using codewords like “legacy assets”) a year or more later. Trumpeting a business model or a plan for months, or even years, to investors and the public alike, and then changing course abruptly shows a lack of leadership and ensures the market will assume the worst. In short, I will take responsibility for what happens on my watch, ensure my decisions are transparent, and will be ready to accept the consequences of my decisions and performance rather than deflect criticism.

Second, I will be a steward of our firm’s reputation and brand. Too many firms have consistently done the exact wrong thing. I will institute rules that ensure our sterling reputation emerges from this crisis intact. Further, I will hold employees accountable for actions that harm our image and will be harsh and swift to send the message that our firm doesn’t tolerate actions that cut against our values. Simultaneously, I will be a strong advocate for defensible decisions and use my position to ensure all relevant stakeholders understand our reasoning–I refuse to let the media scare me into making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of our firm. I will also ensure that tough decisions, like deferring or drastically reducing employee compensation, are made and explained. I promise not to tarnish our firm by repeating half truths and party-line nonsense in defense of the status quo.

Third, I promise to not be ruled by quarterly results and short-term gains. How many assets could have been sold and moved off of firm’s balance sheets, but for executives’ reluctance to miss out on any “upside” of these assets? How many buybacks and ill-conceived mergers were executed because they were the flavor of the day? How much more leverage was taken on because interest rates were low and competitors were doing the same? I will not bow to these “fads” and optical enhancements to earnings, at the expense of logic and long-term strength.

Fourth, I promise to get involved with every aspect of our business. I will make it my job to ensure I am very familiar with all of our products. Further, I promise to dive deeply enough into our business that I will be able to make intelligent decisions where others will not. If no one is asking the difficult questions, I will. If there is a poor incentive structure that leads to poor controls, risk management, or business practices, I promise to find out about it myself, not be told about the problem(s) when it starts adversely affect our firm.

Fifth, and lastly, I promise to eschew the trappings associated with being an executive–I will lead by example. I will set the example for our employees. I will maintain a modest office, fly commercial whenever possible (and that does not translate to “whenever I want to”), and ensure the company never incurs expenses for my comfort or convenience. In an era where travel and expenses are highly restricted for legitimate business purposes, for me to use my position for my own convenience would be inappropriate.

It is clear to me that I will bring exactly the sort of fundamental, common sense changes to your executive office that your firm needs. The past few weeks have shown us all that the current generation of executives, seemingly uniformly, completely fail to meet the obvious standards needed to lead our companies. Recent events have left companies’ equity values depressed, morale crushed, and, in some instances, partial or total financial collapse because of executives’ poor decisions, poor management of their brand and perception, refusal to take personal responsibility, and inability to think objectively and dispassionately about their business. And, when these executives have been forced out, they have been paid handsomely for doing an atrocious job by any objective measure. Simply put, I offer something different–any reward I will reap will come from the same reward you, as an investor, expect: an increase in the value of the firm’s equity.

I hope you agree with me that I am a great fit for an executive position–specifically, Chief Executive Officer–at your firm. Should you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at DearJohnThain@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

Dear John Thain

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TARP Performance: Way Too Early to Judge

January 18, 2009

Felix has a post focused on some of the numbers in the CBO report on TARP. Specifically, it looks at subsidy rates (amount lost from various “bailouts” due to mark-to-market as a percentage of the original investment). First, I’ll note my strong objections to using mark-to-market at any given point in time as a true measure of what something has “cost” taxpayers. One issue that permeates this crisis is the government officials managing their response to (and this is borrowed from somewhere, but I simply cannot remember from where or find it) have something released before the asian markets open. Mark to market, however, is definitely the easiest to measure, hence the use of it. Things like economic activity, bank lending, credit rates for banks, etc. should be used as measures of TARP effectiveness.

Now, let’s move on to my other point–this is like calling the winner in the first few minutes of a game. Any analysis of the effectiveness of the bailouts is likely to be a bit skewed since what would have happened without them isn’t truly known. But drawing any conclusion on a five year investment less than three months after it was made is especially premature. The probability of taxpayers’  investments seeing an actual loss is, actually, quite low in my estimation. Why? These institutions were bailed out already, and that is, in some sense, an endorsement of not letting them fail in the near future. Be dismantled? Perhaps. Be sold? Possibly. But die, like Lehman did? Certainly not. In fact, if Bank of America and Citi prove anything, it’s that politicians are more likely to buy back into the game than face the taxpayers and explain how they lost tens of billions of dollars backing the wrong horse. Don’t get me wrong, I think there significant holes in the strategy for TARP.

This situation, of course, defines moral hazard when the current management is allowed to stay. Citi management can go around doing whatever they want to fix Citi, if they fail we pay. If they win, they look good. Same for Bank of America… Ken Lewis decides to acquire Merrill in a shotgun wedding and then plays chicken to get a subsidy. Did they lower the price of the Merrill acquisition? No. As a matter of fact, the government didn’t just have a right to put their boot on the professional throat of Ken Lewis, but they had a responsibility to–Mr. Lewis actually showed an active interest in leveraging the financial crisis and government strategy. But, I digress.

The point is we won’t know how our investments perform for quite some time, and if the strategy the government employs remains constant then taxpayers are unlikely to lose a dime. So, you won’t find me with a real-time accounting of the TARP investments in Bloomberg anytime soon.

Labor’s Improbable Return?

June 30, 2008

This one will be quick. It seems, however, that unions and other labor organizations that are tied to large pools of pension money would be well served to begin putting that to good use. Indeed the state run pension systems are seeing lots of investing opportunities, but remain cautious and picky. Want to ensure a flailing bank, with a massive footprint in the U.S., stops outsourcing jobs? Offer up a capital infusion at a better level than they can get now… Want to ensure companies are less hostile towards unions? Start up a platform for investing in distressed companies. Once your pension system owns the company, I bet they will be more pro-union. I would imagine that these pension funds will face large scrutiny, obviously these decisions should be made in the context of a sound investment thesis. Just my thought on how unions, too, can prove cyclical.

The Return: An Interesting Sign of Confidence

June 24, 2008

In the beginning, there was Charles Schwab returning to the epononymous firm. Then there was the return of John Mack to Morgan Stanley. Then, there was Jeff Kornthal’s return to Merrill. And now, there is Mike Gelband returning to Lehman Brothers. High level executives coming back into the fray seems to be both a huge vote of confidence and a harbinger of the worst being behind or nearly over.

This, to me, sends a huge signal. If you left, when things were good, and then an unmeasurable storm sets in, why would you return? One would need to be very confident that things were over. A returning executive would need to have a high degree of comfort that the problems internally were well understood and able to be fixed. If these sorts of tests weren’t met then why would one re-marry their fate to a firm they specifically took a financial risk divorcing? One thing never lies, I’ve noticed–the people indicators. Now, Mr. Gelband might be wrong, or things might get worse, but still…

Disclosure: I recently bought some shares of LEH … and I’m feeling pretty good about that move right about now.

Why Google Should Buy the New York Times

June 23, 2008

Well, it seems like this is one of those persistent rumors, although tracking down an actual source of said rumor is difficult. Even Google’s C.E.O. was questioned about it:

[Question:] The New York Times is under pressure to sell. Blogs are abuzz with the idea that Google ought to buy it, because it’s in your interest to keep the quality of journalism high.

[Answer:] I’m not aware of a proposal for us to buy the New York Times, but I’d never rule anything out. So far, we’ve stayed away from buying content. One of the general rules we’ve had is “Don’t own the content; partner with your content company.” First, it’s not our area of expertise. But the more strategic answer is that we’d be picking winners. We’d be disenfranchising a potential new entrant. Our principle is providing all the world’s information.

(emphasis mine).

Now, a few good points are raised. Clearly, as we all realize, the fate of newspapers is a hot topic for debate, partially (mostly?) because it’s a media meta-issue. But, I would claim, there are reasons such a deal could make sense…

1. Google can begin to take a much more integrated path to advertising. Already Google has begun to integrate offline media into it’s suite of products it gives out to track a site’s effectiveness… Now, if Google had an outlet to cross sell print ads and help an end user optimize advertising campaigns across T.V., the Web, and print media … well, sounds like a game changer, no? After that all that’s left are integrating radio, billboards, and maybe skywriting …

2. The New York Times is currently a content creator that distributes its own content. But does it need to be? First of all, the NY Times owns lots of different properties, so their ability to distribute is beyond one print newspaper. Indeed The New York Times itself seems to have the right thoughts as far as leveraging it’s online presence. This seems to show in their results. For example, from their annual report

The Times Company was the 10th largest presence on the Web, with 48.7 million unique visitors in December 2007, up approximately 10% from December 2006. Last year the Company generated a total of $330 million in digital revenues, up 20%, or 22% excluding the additional week in 2006. Digital revenues now account for more than 10% of our total revenues compared with 8% in 2006.

(emphasis mine).

Think about how many companies are deciding, now, whether to put advertising dollars to work with the New York Times or with Google… eliminate the decision! Now some of the $42 billion in print advertising dollars doesn’t have to lose effectiveness as circulation drops, it merely becomes more mobile. The chunk that is going to the New York Times (which has approximately $3 billion in revenue) now goes to Google (and who wants to bet it also grows in size?). Furthermore, Google can easily take a great brand and content creation machine and de-couple it from its historical outlet, namely, dead trees. Dow Jones distributes its content, the one who shall not be named generates content for distribution, so why couldn’t Google open up distribution of the New York Times’ content? It could–as a matter of fact the New York Times does this already, with the New York Times Syndicate. I could find no evidence of the syndication effort contributing significantly to the bottom line in the NYT SEC filings nor in their annual report–seems like this effort could be strengthened as well.

3. The New York Times’ ability to distribute content is a great complement to what Google already offers. Have you ever read the New York Times’ own Open, a blog dedicated to coding done inside the Times? Clearly the Times has a massive infrastructure dedicated to personalization, pushing news out into the world, and solving a number of other technological hurdles. Could Google, perhaps, add a full suite of online publishing applications to it’s Google Apps product? I bet.

4. Google owning the New York Times is good for news and journalism. When you have a deep-pocketed owner whose content distribution business focuses on turning out a quality product, it’s better than having shareholders who focus on being profitable. The problem with a newspaper is that it’s business is the newspaper business–it’s not the core business of the New York Times to sell it’s content and drive up the circulation of the papers with which it competes for subscriptions. If Google, with it’s massive online businesses, can drive it’s profit up by 10% (for one year), when added to the annual profits of the New York Times itself, the acquisition has paid for itself (assuming no premium to the market price). This certainly seems doable, given Google’s phenominal growth so far–and once the synergies begin accelerating Google’s own growth, why tinker with the paper?

So, for all these reasons, it seems like Google can jump into the content creation business the right way. With acquiring a strong web presence, getting a “hook” into other advertising avenues on a massive scale, and even adding to their core competencies, Google is uniquely positioned to modernize how the market thinks about the value of newspaper companies. Indeed, in doing all of this, Google can even advance it’s “Do no evil” motto by supporting pure journalism. All-in-all, the combination of these things seems to be a good case to be made by Google for purchasing the New York Times.

T-Minus 12 Months to the Rally

February 11, 2008

One trend recently is that many funds or money managers that can raise opportunistic money have started to call asking for distressed opportunities to invest in. These funds are all looking for high return (18-20%) opportunities and usually take a few months to get up and running in addition to a few more months to start sourcing actual buying opportunities. (These funds usually employ leverage, so high return hurdles don’t refer to nominal spreads.) With so many platforms springing up, from both established players and nascent funds, how long can it be before these players fall prey to competition? If you are the same bid for bonds and loans that the larger, relationship firms are, how do you invest your newly raised funds? How long before they relax their return hurdles and the lower parts of the various debt capital structures finds buyers at tighter levels? I guess we’ll see…