Blog

2010

The Consumer Christmas 2010

I spent time at the epicenter of American spending over the past few days. The Christmas shopping at Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan was, in a word, tepid.

Don’t get me wrong. The store was busy but large areas were deserted. A store that stays open 24 hours a day is a phenomenon in itself but those wandering the aisles were being attracted to sale racks and less-spendy areas of the store.

It was interesting that many of the fur-bedecked matriarchs leading families very slowly and deliberately through the store’s luxury departments were speaking other languages. A lot of Russian and many Asian languages filled the air as we steered around them.

It’s not surprising. Almost all surveys of consumer behavior in the U.S. show a concentration on reducing debt that is unprecedented. Spenders are coming to grips with the fact that jobs are not multiplying, they’ve got to make do with what they have, and the smartest thing they can do is get out from under credit card and other debt as quickly as possible.

Where was shopping intense in Manhattan? Jack’s Dollar Store located just a few blocks from our hotel. Wall to wall shoppers all the way up to the closing hour.

The most likely scenario for the economy, in my opinion, is a long slow recovery. What I observed falls in line with that. I think a GDP growth near 3% in 2011 will enable the unemployment rate to drop below 9%. Spending will return cautiously. It won’t be for big-ticket items but will begin to bolster support for more indulgent food, some travel, culture, entertainment, and family involvement.

We attended sold-out Broadway shows but there were half-priced tickets available up to curtain time at almost all shows. Movies that you would have to buy tickets for days in advance at prime viewing times were walk-up purchases. Top-rated restaurants were busy but not overwhelmed. On the eve of the Christmas rush I’ve been getting discount and free-shipping (even of the rapid variety) offers on a regular basis.

We’ve moved into an era of moderation and introspection. May we emerge more sober and wiser.

Trouble to the South

A typical segment when I’m doing a forecast for a client is a listing of 50-50 possibilities in a 5-year or longer time frame. I find it expands perspectives, provokes thought, and prompts a discussion of impacts.
A situation that gets a lot of comment is the emerging crisis in Mexico. When a huge trading partner is facing loss of control of large areas of its nation it signals bad news to come. The current government in Mexico is facing the convergence of several forces:
The powerful drug cartels have not only gained control of several provinces but face up readily to federal troops. They have equivalent if not better armament and intelligence sources.
The wage gap vs. the United States continues to drive illegal border crossings. Much of the revenue paid by Central and South Americans now flows directly to the drug cartels. It’s a multi-billion dollar business.
A precipitous drop in oil field productivity. The country has already become a net importer of oil. A key source of revenue and economic base is fading away.
The Calderon administration is wavering on the use of force to fight the cartels. The cartels get media coverage on their own terms at will. Public perception is the government is impotent.
Some of the impacts:

  • Which party wins the next election? Will the US eventually be dealing with a cartel-controlled government?
  • When will the violence spill over the border? Will we see massacres of undocumented immigrants on the US side of the line? The deaths of 72 migrants recently hardly raised a ripple in the US press but how much longer will that last?
  • What is the long term effect on the Mexican economy? Will there be a leveling of income across the border or will the wage pressure continue to send a flood of immigrants north?
  • What is the effect on drug legalization deliberations in both countries? Will marijuana be legalized in both countries? Who will control the production and distribution?
  • When will the issue make its way into US politics and elections? Will a war being waged just south of the US border affect the next presidential election in 2012?

Not Your Average Feds

I spent an interesting and spirit-raising day with senior executives of the Social Security Administration recently. I delivered learning experiences on “Vigilant Leadership” – sessions on how to look into the future, forecast, prepare flexibly, and take action.

I work with federal agencies from time to time. GSA, NASA, and the National Credit Union Administration are all past clients. Federal agency leadership gets a lot of bad flack in the media, from legislators, and from the general public.

What I saw, heard, and experienced in Baltimore with their top tier of SSA professionals differs from what one sees and hears in the press. These are smart, imaginative, and well-informed managers. They’re some of the best I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this work.

When I’m doing an executive education seminar at least half the session time is interaction about the future. Whether it’s question and answer or small group activity this important part of a learning experience is approached differently by every group with which I work. In the SSA’s case the eagerness to tackle foresight, emerging issues, and inevitable challenges was some of the most keen I’ve ever seen. It was even more encouraging to see it come from these very senior groups that included the number two person in the agency.

The management is pragmatic and realistic. They know they’re administering a system under huge demographic and economic pressures. But they also recognize and are anticipating social change, generational differences in interaction, shifting workplace habits, privacy concerns, and the long term impact of current deficit spending.

I was impressed.

The E-Reader Killer

The other day I spent about an hour with an iPad.

Those of you who know me or follow this site know I’m a Mac convert. I switched from what the Apple cognoscenti refer to as the “dark side” seven years ago. It’s been a very good experience. Frankly, the Windows world has improved much since I left. But there’s a bigger issue here.

I believe I held the device that will kill the e-readers. Convergence is coming.

When I sit next to a Kindle or Sony user on airplanes I hear rave reviews. Convenience, long charge life, portability are the things they mention. But they also acknowledge it’s another gadget in the bag along with the laptop, smartphone, and various accoutrements of the business traveler today.

With the iPad – and what will be a shrinking horde of imitators over the next few years – you get much more than the reader. It’s really a true lap companion that does much more than just show you a replicated black and white page. It’s a full color, multi-tasking, e-mail and word processing handler – at the minimum. Some power users make them much more.

And the price is just a little more than double the e-reader. Why not spend the little more and get something that does way more than twice the lower priced gadget?

Key indicator – the dropping cost of e-readers. http://nyti.ms/afXw0u A price war has already begun. Developers see an adoption disruption early. Amazon bumps up its advertising.

The Wild Card Weeks

Wild Cards are lower probability, high impact events. We’ve not seen a few weeks like the last three for some time. I’m not a believer in the adage of “threes” when it comes to these events but there are lessons and implications for the three we’ve just seen.
A volcano erupts and ash plus extreme caution by air travel regulators paralyzes a system we take for granted. Millions are stranded. Millions, by any currency measure, are lost. Alternative transportation comes into short-term vogue and overloads. Normalcy returns and we forget. But that volcano is still smoking and just because it’s not page 1 news we relax.
An oil platform explodes and lives are lost. Initial concerns about leaks are downplayed by company executives. Days pass and a slick surfaces. There’s action but no results. Now we’re staring into one of the great environmental disasters of our generation.
Initial reports of an over-reliance on a “blowout preventer” will be examined in hearings and investigations for the next 3-4 years. Recriminations from environmentalists take on stronger weight. A decision to open more offshore drilling could not have been worse timed. We realize that we’re totally unprepared for the scale of the problem, contingencies for stopping the gusher of oil on the bottom, and we’re unenlightened or purposefully ignorant about the risks of the technology.
A car bomb fails to detonate in New York’s Times Square. If it had a fireball would have killed dozens, perhaps more. Vehicles nearby would have burned and exploded. The ensuing panic would have injured hundreds. Midtown Manhattan would have emptied as reports of the notifying phone call leaked out. The caller said it was only a diversion for a larger device. Transportation would have slammed to a standstill. Offices remained empty for Monday morning. Absenteeism spiked. Broadway theaters cancelled performances. And the world’s biggest financial center would have stopped for days. The economic after-effect would have climbed into the hundreds of millions for a devices that cost only a few hundred dollars.
When the alleged bomber is arrested within 53 hours we relax. Investigations of the origin, connection to terrorist groups, evaluation of police response will come. There will be criticism of no-fly lists, airport security, even Craigslist. But when the crisis is over our thinking returns to the mundane.
Therein lies the problem. Extraordinary events like these should prompt contingency thinking and action. They should trigger better preparation, encouragement of public involvement, and planning for the next inevitable event. Too often we don’t look at the next event, only the last event.
I’m hoping the wild-cards of the past few weeks result in serious contemplation and preparation for:
  • Disruptions of air travel for substantial periods of time on the part of industry and government.
  • Development of even better alternatives to face-to-face communication to back up or reduce long distance travel.
  • Better technology and layered backup systems for the next generation of deepwater drilling like that necessary for tapping the even deeper oilfields off the coast of Brazil.
  • An acceleration of alternative energy sources and, most importantly, conservation.
  • A renewed recognition that many man-made systems have Faustian consequences that should be contemplated before adoption, not after.
  • Higher levels of vigilance among all peoples in all places for those that would indiscriminately destroy life.
  • Smooth transitions to pre-thought Plans B, C, D, and Z when the worst happens.

Vigilant Leadership

The single most valuable asset I see in an organization is a habit of foresight coupled with contemplation and tied directly to action.
If I rank the organizations I consult on their effectiveness, those that do all three of these do best overall. They generate more profits, have better looking balance sheets, attract investment, or serve their stakeholders the best.
I like to call it
vigilant leadership.”
What’s involved?
Vigilant leadership engages as many individuals as possible in an organization, and certainly all of the directors and senior management, in a discipline of looking ahead. That means staying abreast of events, being advised of emerging issues, recognizing “weak signals” of shifting environments, having depth of knowledge in areas specific to the organization’s strategy, and focusing particularly on long term thinking about what will affect the organization over a decade-or-longer time frame.
This is extraordinarily difficult for most organizations to achieve. Clients of mine have difficulty with it. I think it’s for several reasons.
One is the lack of a major
commitment to foresight. For example, with some of my financial service clients an environmental scanning piece developed by a national trade organization is distributed to the board in advance of the annual planning retreat. When I ask about what foresight process they’re using that’s the answer I get. A start, but not nearly enough.
Another difficulty is the governance structure and
expectations. I don’t believe organizations ask enough from their directors. Every organization’s director should be expected to be not only up to speed on the industry market as well as geographical or industry or product or service niches. They should be accountable for depth of knowledge in the much broader and higher impact developments in the economy, consumer behavior, emerging competition, and geopolitical forces.
A third barrier is the lack of discipline, time, and process for
contemplation. Retreats are for contemplation. Their very label presupposes getting away to do some thinking. They are for discussion certainly. But most of all they should be an immersion away from one’s typical environment in order to gain perspective and spend time in thought.
I find thought is rare in most retreat settings. There are many reasons. One is the assumption that because the retreat is being held in a nice location with recreation opportunities then one should focus on those. Another is the presence, in too many settings, of spouse and family. Nice, but counterproductive largely. Another is a tendency to crowd agenda. One presentation after another. A need to sign off on strategy. A board meeting with a consent agenda. A race to complete work in order to have fun, socialize, or get to a meal.
Most of all retreats feature way
too much opinion expression and much too little contemplation.
This doesn’t mean that directors and senior management should be shut up in monastic cells to think. But it does mean that there should be time to gather one’s thoughts, form opinion, discuss deeply, and only then to reach consensus on decisions.
Fourth is
stamina. Vigilant leadership is a process, a journey. There is no letup. There is no downtime.
I’m not suggesting that all of an individual’s time away from an organization should be spent in foresight. Nor am I espousing huge amounts of force-fed reading. But I’ve found through the years as I’ve taught anticipatory skills to management, installed foresight systems in organizations, and consulted on strategy that the really good work that makes a successful organization happens in between all the other daily responsibilities in my clients’ lives.
When directors and senior management are introduced to
foresight techniques, integrated into a system that pushes appropriate amounts of information to decision-makers, and encouraged to contemplate on one’s own time, good things happen.
Image: susanvg, via Flickr CC license

The Buffett Letter

I read Warren Buffett’s letter to me as a shareholder this morning. Direct, analytical, balanced as usual. I like this passage a lot:
“Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding. Just because Charlie and I can clearly see dramatic growth ahead for an industry does not mean we can judge what its profit margins and returns on capital will be as a host of competitors battle for supremacy.”
The chairman’s contention that obvious upside growth is no guarantee of success is one that many leaders miss. I see it in industries challenged by bright but unclear futures.
Agriculture is an example. It’s obvious that increasing world population is going to demand food and a growing middle class will increase demand for animal protein in diets.
OK. Barring a major disease outbreak or a comet hit, this is an obvious outcome.
Many in agriculture assume that North America will be the big winner. That the world will beat a path to their production. That other nations, other producers will not be able to keep pace or match their products. Here the Buffett interpretation is missed.
Predictions from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich to recent forecasts of peak oil after-effects have breathlessly proclaimed danger. I watched Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in 1995 do a predictive presentation on
Who Will Feed China. He’d written a book with that title.
The answer to Brown’s question? China itself. While importing substantial quantities of soybeans and vegetable oil it is quite adept at meeting its own food needs and exporting very large quantities of foodstuffs and value-added products to the world.
Where is Buffet’s “host of competitors” battling for supremacy? Everywhere.
I can cite examples of basic crop rotation and sound agronomy’s ability to triple and quadruple the productivity of land in Asia and Africa.
Then there’s wonderful technology
not involving genetic modification but making use of plant genomes to bolster Mendel’s techniques in developing even better crops and nutritious food. Mega-competitors like Brazil, Argentina, and huge multi-national corporations that have bought land in the poorest nations will crank out food, feed, and fiber in the next 3 decades.
Errors in judgment like looking at autos in 1910 or TV sets in 1950 or hand-held converged devices today with rose-colored myopia abound. There’s no argument that strong demand is ahead but there are no clear, dominant, easy winners.
Heck, one of my clients, Motorola, is spinning off its well-known handset business and retrenching to the predictable, profitable platform that has been there for decades: two-way radios and similar technology. Personally I think it’s a solid, overdue strategic move.
Question the too-easy and too-optimistic assumptions. Widen your view. Look ahead. Identify the potential competition before it surprises you. And then adjust your strategy to compete in the good, but challenging times ahead.

Patent Harbinger: Where is Distributed Energy Headed?

I advise clients to watch certain metrics for emerging direction. A good example popped up recently in all the hype over the Bloom fuel cell announcements.
Bloom is a startup that has built fuel cell “servers” supplying electricity to a number of Silicon Valley firms. If you’ve missed the hype there’s a healthy helping
here. The servers at those big SV firms run a cool $750,000. Not pocket change to us consumers.
The Bloom technology is interesting because of a several factors. 1) It
might scale down. The company’s statement that they could be producing home-sized units for a $3000 price point in a few years causes ripples in the energy sector. 2) It shows off a technology that’s taken a back seat in the media, fuel cells. 3) It demonstrates early hype for a technology. I encourage skepticism when something gets too much media attention.
But what caught my eye as my scanning system picked this up is the longer term pattern of patents in “clean energy.”
My favorite weekly scanning source, The Economist, showed this chart at left.
When you think “alternative energy” or hear it in a politician’s speech you probably think solar, wind, electric vehicle, or maybe biofuel. You don’t think of fuel cells. But a patent rate three times the other technologies causes me to point to it as a trend to watch carefully.
The Economist hypothesizes it’s due to corporate R&D stimulated by government subsidies. Probably the major driver. When you start delving into the practicalities of the Bloom style of cell you see problems. Very, very high operating temperatures. 24 hour a day operation which gets to be a problem if you can’t sell your electricity back to the grid especially at night when demand is low. A reliable source (read that as natural gas).
My forecast: true renewables like solar and wind look like the best bets. But keep an eye on fuel cells for the long term.