When Industry Analysis Goes Flat

Barry Lynn, apparently some sort of John Kenneth Galbraith wannabe, has an amusingly cockeyed post over at the Harvard Business Review blog. He seems to think that state regulations protecting local beer distributors from vertically integrated competitors are the font of virtue, preserving needed diversity in the beer market by allowing craft and micro-brewers to get their product delivered. But if the big brewers were legally able (and motivated) to foreclose distribution of the small brands, they would be legally able to do it without vertically integrating into distribution (by requiring exclusivity).

A simpler analysis: When there were many  competing major brewers, independent multi-brewer distributors made economic sense, since they eliminated needless duplication of sales and delivery of all those brands to retail establishments. With the consolidation of the beer industry into two giant companies that own all the big brands (and a shift from on-premises to at-home consumption), a single-brewer distribution firm can now internalize almost all those economies. Then the beer industry starts to look a bit more like the soft-drink industry, where two major firms own and develop all the major brands and we don’t blink an eye at their bottler/distributors having exclusive relationships with the upstream brand owners or even being vertically integrated with them. If your local Costco or supermarket won’t carry a micro-brew or an off-brand soda, it’s unlikely to be due to market power on the part of the distributors.

UPDATE: It seems that AB InBev, owner of Budweiser and many other beer brands, is indeed shifting to more of a product innovation strategy and running into distribution problems with these new products:

“That’s not to say that AB InBev has perfected the process. Profit this year was hurt by higher distribution and administration costs in the U.S. as the brewer struggled to keep up with demand for Platinum and Lime-A-Rita, which required extensive — and expensive — countrywide distribution.”

So maybe there are strategic reasons why AB InBev would want more control over its distribution pipeline.

Creativity=recombination, Jedi edition

Where do great ideas come from? A popular notion among creativity experts is that recombination of preexisting ideas in a new context is the form that most if not all creativity takes. One more datum: Courtesy of my lovely wife, it seems that George Lucas may have been voguing, so to speak, when he came up with one of his most iconic images. 

Laundering the University of California’s Past

Apparently the University of California system decided it needed to update its image, so they cooked up this. Here are the old and the new side by side:


When I see the old  logo, I think of quaint values like learning and truth. When I see the new logo, I imagine little enzymes acting like keys to unlock the stains in my laundry.

UPDATE: The UC bureaucracy folds up like a tent a mere five days after this was posted. Maybe the new logo should say vox populi somewhere. (H/t David Hoopes in the comments.)

Nassim Taleb, the Angry Version of Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve now read most of Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.  Not sure why I read Taleb.  I’m ashamed to admit it.

His stuff is certainly entertaining. Really entertaining.  But it’s just narcissistic drivel (I mean, the heights of arrogance in this book are something else, somebody should put together a web compilation of the best Taleb drivel) — basically advice on how to be more like Taleb.  But, more importantly, it’s hard to really evaluate everything that he covers.

The Antifragile book is about everything – thoughts on diet and exercise (go paleo), ideas on personal interactions (don’t go to lame parties with boring people), and of course lots of genius advice on the economy.  Everything is not-so-neatly packaged into his (anti-)fragile scheme/a.

The formula of his book seems simple enough: invent a name/concept (antifragile), package everything under that scheme, include lots of swearwords and epithets directed at “the other” (e.g., fragilista), sprinkle in some citations to science, mix in some chicken soup stories (you know, about the time when you stormed out of the conference because everyone was being so unreasonable) – and voila, you’ve got your book.

It’s sort of a twist on the Malcolm Gladwell genre.  Though, Taleb is perhaps an angry version of Gladwell.

I think there might be some interesting points in the book, perhaps, but I’ll try to post about those later.   Mostly I see lots and lots of re-packaging and popularizing (moral hazard, the principal-agent problem, learning from failure, self-organization and information aggregation, competition, unintended consequences, etc, etc).  Popularizing things of course has it’s place too.

Meanwhile, strategy scholars were also amongst the heap of academics ridiculed in the book.  Here’s Taleb on his MBA experience:

When I was in business school I rarely attended lectures in something called strategic planning, a required course, and when I showed my face in class, I did not listen for a nanosecond to what was said there; did not even buy the books.  There is something about the common sense of student culture; we knew that it was all babble.  I passed the required classes in management by confusing the professors, playing with complicated logic…

He does thankfully recognize that strategy scholars themselves have noted the planning problem in existing work (e.g., he cites Bill Starbuck’s work – but that argument goes back to Alchian, 1950 etc).

Taleb then goes on to say:

Almost everything theoretical in management, from Taylorism to all productivity stories, upon empirical testing, has been exposed as pseudoscience.

Cute.  I love any argument that in wholesale fashion dismisses a field like that.  Is there pseudoscience in management?  No question.  There is in any field.  And the field of management might even have a disproportionate share of pseudoscience in it.  But the whole book is characterized by those types of glib dismissals (very few are spared), which then makes it hard to evaluate anything novel that Taleb himself might have to say.

HP/Autonomy and Public Company Governance Perplexities

I’ve been listening to my good friend Todd Zenger for the last few years explaining that the strategic management field is predicated on the idea that corporate managers know more than the uninformed stock market and its lazy analysts. Dick Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy makes a similar point. The idea is that finding unique resource synergies is a good way to get competitive advantage but a bad way to please narrow-minded investors who hate unique strategies that are hard for them to evaluate. Raghurum Rajan’s recent presidential address to the American Finance Association makes a similar point, although with a much more positive spin on the role of equity markets in supporting the creation of entrepreneurial enterprises. With such an eminent set of eloquent and insightful advocates, it’s hard not to tentatively consider the perplexing idea that stock markets systematically undervalue powerful synergistic corporate strategies.

Then I wake up.

You probably followed the news about HP’s massive writeoff on its perplexing Autonomy acquisition of a year ago. The headline to that story was HP CEO Meg Whitman’s claim that Autonomy had cooked its books and fooled its auditors prior to HP’s purchase of the firm under previous, perplexingly hired, CEO Leo Apotheker. It isn’t clear that the extent of the alleged fraud can explain the gigantic size of the writedown by HP, but in any case outsiders like short-seller Jim Chanos, much of the British tech analyst community, and the very useful John Hempton, proprietor of the Bronte Capital blog, had long smelled a rat. They thought, even prior to the acquisition, and using only the company’s official accounting statements, that there was something fishy about Autonomy’s books. How could HP’s finance team and the outside auditors have failed to notice this at the due diligence stage? It’s perplexing.

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David Stern and the Aging Emperor-CEO Syndrome

NBA Commissioner David Stern recently fined the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 and severely chastised them for the decision by Gregg Popovich, their near-legendary coach, to rest his aging stars at home rather than fly them to Miami for a meaningless (but nationally televised) tilt with the defending-champion Miami Heat. Is Stern losing his grip? Does he need an intervention and/or a forced retirement as he reaches his managerial dotage? While I haven’t heard of Commissioner Queeg–whoops, Stern–clicking steel balls in his hand or searching for the keys to the strawberries, a Caine Mutiny scenario may be approaching if he continues to deteriorate. Other firms with long-term, successful “emperor” CEOs have found their later years to be problematic. See Eisner, Michael (Disney) or Olson, Kenneth (Digital Equipment Corporation) or maybe Cizik, Robert (Cooper Industries).

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Neuroeconomic imperialism?

I just saw a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the emerging field of neuroeconomics. Unlike behavioral economics, where ideas from psychology have been ported over to economics to explain various individual “anomalies” in choice behavior, in neuroeconomics much of the intellectual traffic has gone in the other direction–economic modeling tools are helpful in understanding psychological processes (including where those processes deviate from classic economic theory). The axiomatic approach to choice makes it a lot easier to parse out how the brain’s actual mechanisms do or don’t obey these axioms.

An important guy to watch in this area is Paul Glimcher, who mostly stays out of the popular press but is a hardcore pioneer in trying to create a unified (or “consilient”) science encompassing neuroscience, psychology, and economics. I’ve learned a lot from reading his Foundations of Neuroeonomics (2010) and Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain (2004): why reference points (as in prospect theory) are physiologically required; how evolutionary theory makes a functionalist and optimizing account of brain behavior more plausible than a purely mechanical, piecemeal, reflex-type theory; why complementarity of consumption goods presents a difficult puzzle for neuroscience; and much more.

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