Sunday, 19 March 2017

Meetings - why do we have  to have the stupid things given that they are almost universally perceived as one of the banes of working life?  The best article I've read about meetings was by written by Antony Jay for the Harvard Business Review in 1976 and he kicks off with the comment that "great many meetings waste a great deal of everyone’s time....long-established committees are little more than memorials to dead problems". 

Meetings can be divided into three broad types. 'Town Hall' meetings, 'Cabinet' meetings and 'Pub' meetings. The Town Mall meeting is a gathering  for leaders/bosses or others to impart information and can be as big as you like. Cabinet meetings are part theatre as little is denied but they are there to reinforce the importance of the members of the cabinet and to ensure that everyone its been by each other to sign off on an agreed plan. And a Pub meeting is a place for creative debate that rarely takes place in a pub at all. 

The Town Hall 

The boss wants to give the troops an update on the firm's performance over the last year, outline the key takeaways from the senior management team's offsite in Monaco, and send some motivational messages to help encourage everyone to work even harder in the months ahead. He or she instructs someone to prepare a powerpoint presentation with the  financial results on it, the key goals, some metrics on profitability, on the trend in the workforce, perhaps on the trend in compensation. The boss then stands at the front of the room,  goes through the slides,  and opens the floor to questions at which point a few brave souls ask a few bland questions, depending on part on how many people there are listening. 

It's possible to do these well, but it's more common to do them very badly. In the best case, the speaker is a motivational, charismatic leader  who doesn't need a powerpoint to help sell a vision of the future. If there are slides they are for reference on technical issues. The listener leaves impressed by the vision and by the passion of the visionary. 

In the worst case, the speaker hasn't really read through the slides properly in advance and so is left mumbling his or her way through them, reading off the screen. Perhaps the VC equipment wasn't tested much in advance and a technician needs to be summoned early in the presentation. There is little ad-libbing and so even less passion or motivation. There may be questions but the overall sense as the listeners leave, is of deflation. A ritual has been accomplished, because it is a ritual obligation of management to talk to the common workers occasionally, but little has been achieved and an opportunity has been missed. 

The cabinet meeting

A cabinet or committee meeting is a social structure, where a group gets together to formally reach agreement, and where the members can be seen to be reaching agreement. The group shares information which others may not have, reasserting its own exclusivity. It may have the meeting at a time and in a place where other lesser mortals know it's happening, which boosts prestige. It offers a chance for the members to reinforce their status relative to each other. But the key to these meetings is that they can only reach significant agreement if there has been sufficient preparation. Issues have been debated in smaller groups over a period of time and the purpose of the final gathering is to iron out the last wrinkles, put the finishing touches on the plan and to be seen to be in collective agreement so that there is collective accountability. No-one can easily say they were never part of the agreement.

So it's a meeting to agree something that's already been agreed.  I'm sure there are some things that are agreed at a cabinet meeting but the preparation work has been done in advance. A proposal was made, the meeting participants were canvased, their views heard. The t's are crossed and the i's are dotted at the meeting itself but the purpose is for everyone to see the body-language, and then there's photo-opportunity, or a signing ceremony or some sort of mutual affirmation.

The failure of a vast number of meetings in real life, is that they should be this kind, where the groundwork has been done long in advance, but instead there is some absurd hope that a group of 20-odd people can get together, discuss, debate and agree something from a standing start in an hour-long meeting. It's impossible for a host of reasons but the most important is that there's so much ritual involved in this kind of meeting. Who sits where, who speaks when, who is trying to impress the boss, who is competing with whom to be a bigger cheese week than they were last, and so on.  If you chair meetings of 6 to 20 people in a work environment and want to understand a bit of the underlying psychology, try asking the members whether they mind the meeting being filmed for training purposes and stick a few discrete cameras in the corners of the room. There will be people trying to get a word in edgeways who are ignored. There will be people whose sole purpose is to disagree with their competitors. There will be body-language galore as our inner ape goes into overdrive.

I've sat through some good meetings on business planning, some meetings where the homework that had been done in advance really paid off and strategic plans were proposed, debated from the perspective off everyone having already done a lot of thinking abut them, and agreement reached. I've sat in more and ones were someone was mad enough to think that 20 people could brainstorm a subject and come up with an interesting plan in an hour. Some of the most awful of these meetings, where presenters drone on, anyone who asks a question is scowled at because that makes the meeting drag on for even longer and where the only thing that is certain is that the group will not take genuine collective ownership of the conclusions, can be found in investment forecasting and strategy. A better recipe for half-hearted groupthink is hard to imagine. 

The Pub meeting 

Which is why I prefer the 'Pub' meeting, where issues really are debated and a relatively blank canvas is covered with ideas and eventually a plan. The image in my mind of a pub argument is of people jabbing fingers in each others faces, sometimes disagreeing loudly, sometimes agreeing joyously, always walking out arm in arm. 

In practice, these meetings can only happen in pubs if all the members of the group are the kind of people comfortable in a pub.  And I'm not sure that you can have even as many as ten people participating. But wherever the meeting happens the rules of engagement are the same - everyone is entitled to their opinion and is encouraged to have a say, regardless of status, age, experience, sex, ethnic background or which rugby team they support. Disagreement is encouraged. But finally, it is absolutely mandatory that everyone leave the pub able to put aside the differences of opinion and be civil to each other. 

In an office environment, the best way to run these meetings is to make the older/more senior/more vocal members of the team wait a while before entering the argument. Younger or more junior people will be nervous of disagreeing later, so need encouraging to express views. And need to know in advance their opinions are going to be sought. Those people who in a film of a meeting are quietly trying to get a word in, need to be picked out early too. It's also important to get to the most important issue for discussion early, before the group starts to flag. 

Some people will never be able to change their opinions even in an environment that encourage them to question them. That's fine, so long as they can debate without being (too) boring and aren't allowed to dominate proceedings. The debate is there to dig into the pros and cons of different opinions and also, to tease out relevant pearls of wisdom from unusual sources. The geeky end of the asset-backed research group had all the clues to impending disaster in 2007 but few firms were listening. The premise of Moneyball is the statisticians had more answers to baseball performance than experienced scouts. A good meeting creates a safe space where the views of these people can get a hearing. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Debt will be the death of us

As investment bank research teams ponder how much to charge for their insights, they could do worse than check out what is available for free, particularly from the growing band of central bank blogs of which the BIS' is still probably the best. Claudio Borio's speech to the NABE conference in Washington DC last week is fascinating (and free, of course).

The speech looks at the role of financial sector drag as a reason for the sluggishness of the economic recovery in many developed economies after the 2008 financial crisis. The BIS view of the world could be summed up as being that equilibrium or natural real interest rates are higher than many policy-makes believe, and this has resulted in an inability to restrain financial booms which cause a misallocation of resources that in turn, leads to painfully slow productivity gains in the subsequent economic recovery.

This is so intuitively true that it needs to be taken seriously. I've reproduced a couple of slides from this presentation and one from an earlier presentation covering the same theme. The first one shows global debt levels rising as a share of GDP, at the same time as real interest rates fall.

If I made the really simple assumption that across the economy as a whole, borrowers pay something like 3% more than the average of the real yields in long-dated government bonds and the central bank policy rate, and that inflation was around 3% in 1986 and 2% in 2015, this chart would suggest that in 1986, overall debt service costs were something like 19% GDP. And in 2015, after almost 30 years of rising debt and falling rates, they were something like 16% GDP. So, no problem then?

You could argue that it makes sense in this world, for policy-makers to accept the downward trend in interest rates. Companies and households alike would and indeed should have more debt because debt-service costs are low. Which is what's happened. Mortgages are bigger as a multiple of income than they used to be (fine if house prices rise for ever, right?) and a glance at the universe of borrowers in the corporate bond market will quickly confirm the gradual downward drift in average credit ratings. A triple-A company with little debt is not maximising the return to shareholders. Better to issue bonds and buy shares back, immediately.

The flaw, is that creditworthiness is a function not solely (or even mainly) of the ability to pay back the interest on a loan. It's about the ability to pay back interest AND principal. In other words, the size of the loan matters. Furthermore, it matters at least as much for the financial sector as for the non-financial sector. If I borrow money from the bank, the bank itself borrows that money too. And if we've learnt nothing else in the last decade, it's that that size of a bank's balance sheet matters. A bank that cares only about keeping income (from interest earned) growing faster than costs (from interest paid) will grow and grow it's balance sheet much as some did in the early 2000s. A focus on return on equity may be Ok for some companies, but not for a bank which needs to care about the return on the capital it uses to earn that money, and needs to set capital aside for the possibility that some of the money it lends never comes back.

 Just accepting that premise implies that the 'equilibrium' which sees more debt and lower rates, is an unstable one. A real equilibrium is one which applies to both the financial cycle and the real economy cycle. As in the second chart I've nicked.....
 This chart shows that real policy rates fell sharply and stayed low in 2001-2204. This is after the bubble burst and after the 9/11 attacks on the US.  Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan worried about disinflation even as the global economy started to recover in earnest and so the Us kept rates down (and the rest of us followed).  In part because inflation was was falling more than people expected, estimates of the natural rate of interest were coming down, albeit not nearly enough to justify the Greenspan-led monetary madness unleashed on us all.  But adjust them for the financial cycle and the natural rate was already rising in 2002-2003.

The crisis followed. Too much money was lent at these low rates. Too many resources were mis-allocated in a world where money was mis-priced. Here's what the BIS' experiment in setting policy to smooth the financial cycle throws out. A cycle, just not nearly such a pronounced one.

After the financial crisis and recession, the misallocation of resources that the financial boom caused/exacerbated, has led to a productivity-free economic recovery, at least in the economies most directly affected. So, estimates of natural rates have come down further. And since there's slack in the global economy, especially if we measure it on the basis of inflation undershooting expectations, policy rates fall even further. The possibility that the inflation cycle is a function of technology and the growth of global markets in goods and labour, is at most only considered in passing.

The depressing thing about this argument, is that the obvious conclusion would be that after a while we're just going to get washed way by another financial boom/bust cycle. Maybe not one whose epicentre is in the US and the UK to quite the same extent as the last one was, but that would be small comfort. It would be better to set global monetary policy with debt levels in mind, before the overall global debt/GDP level gets too much higher.