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Posts Tagged ‘Business’

Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental challenges. Today they are back again, but with much less fanfare. If my Twitter feed is any indication, Rio+20 is getting much less attention that the original Earth Summit.

One item that deserves attention is greater emphasis on getting business involved in protecting the environment. For example, two dozen leading businesses–from Alcoa to Xerox–teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a vision for The New Business Imperative: Valuing Natural Capital (interactive, pdf).

The report lays out the business case that natural resources have real economic value, even if they aren’t traded in markets, and that protecting them can sometimes reduce costs, maintain supplies, soften the blow of future regulation, and build goodwill with customers, communities, and workers. All kind of obvious, at one level, but nonetheless useful to see in print with examples and commitments.

One item that caught my eye is the potential for “green” infrastructure to replace “gray”:

Strong, reliable manmade (“gray”) infrastructure undergirds a healthy marketplace, and most companies depend heavily on it to operate effectively and efficiently. Yet increasingly, companies are seeing the enormous potential for “natural infrastructure” in the form of wetlands and forests, watersheds and coastal habitats to perform many of the same tasks as gray infrastructure — sometimes better and more cheaply.

For instance, investing in protection of coral reefs and mangroves can provide a stronger barrier to protect coastal operations against flooding and storm surge during extreme weather, while inland flooding can be reduced by strategic investments in catchment forests, vegetation and marshes. Forests are also crucial for maintaining usable freshwater sources, as well as for naturally regulating water flow.

Putting funds into maintaining a wetland near a processing or manufacturing plant can be a more cost- effective way of meeting regulatory requirements than building a wastewater treatment facility, as evidenced by the Dow Chemical Seadrift, Texas facility, where a 110-acre constructed wetland provides tertiary wastewater treatment of five million gallons a day. While the cost of a traditional “gray”treatment installation averages >$40 million, Dow’s up-front costs were just $1.4 million.

For companies reliant on agricultural systems, improved land management of forests and ecosystems along field edges and streams, along with the introduction of more diversified and resilient sustainable agriculture systems, can minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water.

To encourage such investments, where they make sense, lawmakers and regulators need to focus on performance–is the wastewater getting clean?–rather than the use of specific technologies or construction.

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Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai believes American companies and investment firms have erred–horribly–by linking manager compensation so tightly to financial market performance. In the current Harvard Business Review, he identifies this as a giant FIB, a Financial Incentive Bubble:

American capitalism has been transformed over the past three decades by the idea that financial markets are suited to measuring performance and structuring compensation. Stock-based pay for corporate executives and high-powered incentive contracts for investment managers have dramatically altered incentives on both sides of the capital market. Unfortunately, the idea of compensation based on financial markets is both remarkably alluring and deeply flawed: It seems to link pay more closely to performance, but it actually rewards luck and can incentivize dangerous risk-taking. This system has contributed significantly to the twin crises of modern American capitalism: governance failures that cast doubt on the stewardship abilities of U.S. managers and investors, and rising income inequality.

Mihir has nothing against well-functioning financial markets. He emphasizes that they “play a vital role in economic growth by ensuring the most efficient allocations of capital,” and he believes that capable managers and investors should be “richly rewarded” when their talents are truly evident.

The problem is that incentive compensation based on financial performance does a lousy job of distinguishing skill from luck. In finance-speak, managers and investors often get rewarded for taking on beta, when their pay really ought to be linked to alpha. In practice, luck gets rewarded with undeserved windfalls (that are by no means offset by negative windfalls for the unlucky). And that, he argues, results in an important “misallocation of financial, real, and human capital.”

Well worth a read.

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The President’s new Framework for Business Tax Reform is two documents in one. The first diagnoses the many flaws in America’s business tax system, and the second offers a framework for fixing them.

Much of the resulting commentary has focused on the policy recommendations. But I’d like to give a shout out to the diagnosis. The White House and Treasury have done an outstanding job of documenting the problems in our business tax system.

As the Framework notes, our corporate tax system pairs a high statutory tax rate with numerous tax subsidies, loopholes, and tax planning opportunities. Our 39.2 percent corporate tax rate (including state and local taxes) is the second-highest in the developed world, and will take over the lead in April when Japan cuts its rate. But our tax breaks are more generous than the norm.

That leaves us with the worst possible system – one that maximizes the degree to which corporate managers have to worry about taxes when making business decisions but limits the revenue that the government actually collects. It’s a great system for tax lawyers, accountants, and creative financial engineers, and a lousy system for business leaders and ordinary Americans. Far better would be to fill in the Swiss cheese of the tax base and move to a lower statutory rate, just as the President proposes (albeit with much more clarity about the rate-cutting than the cheese-filling and with proposals that would make some of the holes bigger).

A related problem is that our corporate tax system plays favorites among different businesses and activities, often with no good reason. To illustrate, Treasury’s Office of Tax Analysis calculated the average tax rates faced by corporations in different industries. As you can see, the corporate tax really tilts the playing field:

I am at a loss to understand why the tax system should favor utilities, mining (which includes energy extraction), and leasing, while hitting services, construction, and wholesale and retail trade so hard. Why should the average retailer pay 31%, while the average utility pays only 14%?

These disparities are unfair and economically costly. Investors recognize these differences and allocate their capital accordingly. More capital flows to industries on the left side of the chart and less to those on the right. Far better would be a system in which investors deployed their capital based on economic fundamentals, not the distortions of the tax system.

The chart highlights one of the key battlegrounds in corporate tax reform. Leveling the playing field (while maintaining revenues) will require that some companies pay more so others can pay less. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced Wednesday that it “will be forced to vigorously oppose pay-fors that pit one industry against another.” But such pitting is exactly what will be necessary to enact comprehensive corporate tax reform.

P.S. The full names of the sector names I abbreviated in the chart are: Transportation and Warehousing; Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting; Finance and Holding Companies; and Wholesale and Retail Trade.

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About a month ago, I remarked on Groupon’s explosive revenue growth (and its equally impressive cost growth).

The company revised its financial results yesterday, and the revenue picture looks less explosive. In the latest update of its S-1 registration statement, Groupon reported $393 million in Q2 revenues. That’s a remarkable figure for such a young company but a far cry from the $878 million it previously reported.

And what happened to the almost $400 million in missing revenue? That money–payments to the merchants who provide goods and services for Groupons–is now subtracted before reporting revenue rather than deducted after as an expense. In short, Groupon went from a gross measure of revenue to a net one.

The bad news for Groupon is that the new presentation makes the company appear less than half as big as it did previously. The good news, I suppose, is that its expenses went down by the same amount.

Groupon’s effort to go public has been one of the bumpier ones in recent memory. Its first filing emphasized a profit measure, essentially profits before less marketing expenses, that was widely ridiculed. That got dropped in the second draft. And now a gigantic restatement of revenue in the third draft. Not to mention, the company’s recent difficulties with the SEC’s quiet period requirements.

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Daily deal leader Groupon continues to grow its revenues at a jaw-dropping pace. According to its updated S-1 filing, the company sold $878 million in Groupons in the second quarter, ten times more than a year earlier:

However, costs have been exploding too. Groupon spent almost $1 billion in Q2:

Put it all together, and Groupon has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars:

Small compared to the billions and trillions of red ink the federal government confronts, but still a formidable problem. Particularly given all the other players in this space, including a certain search company whose $6 billion acquisition offer Groupon spurned last year. I would have taken the money and run. But perhaps I am not seeing the secret ingredient that will give Groupon a persistent competitive advantage in the face of vigorous competition.

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We’ve all heard the rumors that Groupon is the fastest growing company ever. Today it finally opened its books in its preliminary filing to go public.

Wow.

In the first quarter of 2009, the online deal company mustered only a quarter of million in revenue. In the first quarter of 2011, it brought in almost $650 million.

Wow.

Only slightly less wow, by the way, is the fact that Groupon lost $103 million in the first quarter. Marketing and SG&A are expensive.

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Over at the New York Times You’re the Boss blog, Jay Goltz provides a great example of economic reasoning (ht: Jack B). His topic: how should small businesses think about the costs and benefits of participating in daily coupon sites like Groupon? Participants can see big spikes in traffic, at the expense of slashed margins. Is it worth it?

Goltz deploys many of the standard concepts we professor types teach our microeconomics students: distinguishing variable and fixed costs, the importance of thinking incrementally (i.e., at the margin), etc. But, frankly, he does it in a more entertaining way.

Here’s his basic set-up (but check out the whole article for how this calculation works out):

There are eight key calculations you need to consider to determine whether this is a better advertising vehicle than something else you may already be doing

1. Your incremental cost of sales — that is, the actual cost percentage for a new customer. If you are giving boat tours and have empty seats, your incremental costs for an additional customer are next to nothing. If you are selling clothes, your incremental costs might be 50 percent of the sale price. Food might be 40 percent. In any case, don’t include fixed costs that you would be incurring any way.

2. The amount of the average sale. If the coupon is for $75, will the customers spend more that that? I have seen more than one retailer complain that nobody spends more than the value of the coupon. That’s unlikely but I am sure it can feel that way, and that is my point: Keep track.

3. Redemption percentage. You don’t really know until the end, but from my experience and from what I have heard, 85 percent is a good guess.

4. Percentage of your coupon users who are already your customers. I’m sure this number varies tremendously depending on the size of your city, how long you have been around, and the type of business.

5. How many coupons does each customer buy? (The more they buy, the fewer people are exposed to your product or service.)

6. What percentage of coupon customers will turn into regular customers? Again, it can seem as if they are all bargain shoppers who will never return without a discount, but that’s almost impossible. Is it possible 90 percent won’t return? Sure.

7. What is the advertising value of having your business promoted to 900,000 people — that’s the number on Groupon’s Chicago list — even if they don’t buy a coupon?

8. How much does it normally cost you to acquire a customer through advertising? Everything is relative.

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The highlight of this month’s Wired magazine is a profile of Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings. The theme is Netflix’s strategy to thrive even as their business model changes (e.g., as on-line streaming replaces DVDs by mail).

The opening paragraphs document an impressive willingness to change course:

It had taken the better part of a decade, but Reed Hastings was finally ready to unveil the device he thought would upend the entertainment industry. The gadget looked as unassuming as the original iPod—a sleek black box, about the size of a paperback novel, with a few jacks in back—and Hastings, CEO of Netflix, believed its impact would be just as massive. Called the Netflix Player, it would allow most of his company’s regular DVD-by-mail subscribers to stream unlimited movies and TV shows from Netflix’s library directly to their television—at no extra charge.

The potential was enormous: Although Netflix initially could offer only about 10,000 titles, Hastings planned to one day deliver the entire recorded output of Hollywood, instantly and in high definition, to any screen, anywhere. Like many tech romantics, he had harbored visions of using the Internet to route around cable companies and network programmers for years. Even back when he formed Netflix in 1997, Hastings predicted a day when he would deliver video over the Net rather than through the mail. (There was a reason he called the company Netflix and not, say, DVDs by Mail.) Now, in mid-December 2007, the launch of the player was just weeks away. Promotional ads were being shot, and internal beta testers were thrilled.

But Hastings wasn’t celebrating. Instead, he felt queasy. For weeks, he had tried to ignore the nagging doubts he had about the Netflix Player. Consumers’ living rooms were already full of gadgets—from DVD players to set-top boxes. Was a dedicated Netflix device really the best way to bring about his video-on-demand revolution? So on a Friday morning, he asked the six members of his senior management team to meet him in the amphitheater in Netflix’s Los Gatos offices, near San Jose. He leaned up against the stage and asked the unthinkable: Should he kill the player?

Three days later, at an all-company meeting in the same amphitheater, Hastings announced that there would be no Netflix Player.

In short, Reed Hastings is not a man who gets locked in by sunk costs: he’s willing to kill projects (or, in this case, spin them off) even if he’s got years invested in them. A good example for my students when we discusses costs in a few weeks. And just another example of the strengths of Netflix’s culture.

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The magazine Wired regularly publishes some of the most interesting articles about economics and the modern world. Last month, for example, they had a great article about the antitrust threats looming over Google. The month before, it covered the economics of Somali pirates, which I never found time to write about. And the month before that, it discussed how Google, not eBay, is really the master of auctions.

This month, Wired provides an in-depth look at craigslist.

For those who don’t already know, craigslist is the place to post classified ads on the web. According to Wired, it is the world’s “most popular dating site,” “the most popular job-search site,” and “the nation’s largest apartment-hunting site.” Not to mention the myriad other things you can buy, sell, trade, give, receive, etc. on the site.

How did craigslist achieve this dominance? The article doesn’t provide a crisp answer, but it does offer some gems about how the company operates.  You should read the article for the full effect, but here is a sample:

On innovation:

Think of any Web feature that has become popular in the past 10 years: Chances are craigslist has considered it and rejected it. If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.

(more…)

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The slide deck describing the culture at Netflix has some real gems (ht kottke.org).

For example, here are three elements of the company’s compensation practices:

Unlike many companies, we practice “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” (slide 26)

Netflix vacation policy and tracking: “there is no policy or tracking” (“There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one has come to work naked lately.”) (slide 68)

Big salary is the most efficient form of compensation. (No bonuses, no free stock options, etc.) (slide 106)

Well worth a read.

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