The fundamental problem with the world economy

… is that wages are sticky.

With increased globalization, it has become significantly cheaper to produce certain goods and services in countries that were hitherto “low income” or “less developed’ or whatever you call it. In the past, in part due to protectionism at various levels and in part due to high transaction costs (transport, communication, etc.) “developed economies” such as the US or Europe had got adjusted to a reasonably high wage structure. In fact, it is possible that in the absence of trade with the rest of the world these countries might still be able to support that structure.

However, with the walls of protectionism and transaction costs falling, these traditionally high wage economies haven’t been able to compete with the up and coming economies where production costs are significantly lower. And because wages are sticky, i.e. it is impossibly hard to cut wages across the board, this has resulted in unemployment. Worse, a lot of other benefits (such as Social Security or Medicare in the US) have been set based on the high wage structure these countries used to enjoy.

And then you have unions, which makes it even tougher for you to cut wages which might make you competitive. It’s a combination of sticky wages and unionism that the various austerity measures in Greece haven’t managed to go through (of course, Greece has another set of problems in terms of law enforcement and tax collection).

And so, in short

1. Wages are sticky. Even though your current wages are not competitive enough, you can’t cut wages

2. That leads to high unemployment

3. That leads to lower economic activity and thus depression

4. The government needs to spend more to “stimulate” the economy, but hasn’t collected enough in good times. And the “level” of the economic cycle itself has gone down now. And the government itself has other obligations linked to the high wage levels

And so it goes. One thing I can think of is “devaluation” (in these times of floating currency rates, that term has lost all meaning), but then now these countries import so much that will again not be a good idea.


PS: please note that this post has been filed under “Arbit”

Corporate Culture

In good times, when you like the core aspects of your job, you don’t really care about your “organizational culture”. You don’t care so much about how they treat you, about how they make you feel. All you care about is that you are enjoying your time there, that you think there’s some value that the job is adding to your life, and you are happy receiving your salary.

When your organization’s “culture” starts mattering is when things aren’t going all that well in your job. It’s when you stop liking the core aspects of your job, and start wondering why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s the time when all the “cultural” and “feel good” things about your job that come to the fore. That’s the time when any problems that you have with the organizational culture get highlighted, and you start focusing more on that and less on your work (after all, you’re trying to think whether there’s a reason apart from your core work for you to stay in the job).

As an employer, the risk with not paying attention to your organization’s culture is that when one of your employees doesn’t feel that good about his/her job (and this is bound to happen; irrespective of how much one loves his job, one is bound to go through these cycles), if he realizes that he doesn’t like the culture of your organization, it is that much more easier for him to get extremely disgruntled, and think of deserting ship. By maintaining a great organizational culture, on the other hand, even when someone is going through the troughs (in terms of core work), there is value that they see in sticking on to job, and living to see another day in the job, when (hopefully) the cycle would’ve been reversed.

As a prospective employee, if you see a high degree of attrition in a prospective employer, think twice before joining even if the core nature of work really appeals to you. For, the attrition indicates something is possibly wrong with the culture of the place, and that sooner or later that is bound to bite you.

Tranche of wallet

One of the buzzwords in marketing in the last few years has been “share of wallet”. “We don’t aim for market share in any particular segment”, they say. “What we are aiming for is a larger portion of the customer’s share of wallet”. Basically what marketers try to do is to design their products such that a larger portion of customers’ spending comes to them rather than go to competitors (again – they claim they have no direct competitors and everyone else who competes for the customer’s spending is a competitor).

So far so good. But the problem with looking at things from a “share of wallet” pespective is that it assumes that the wallet is homogeneous. That each part of the wallet is similar to the other, and spending for different items comes uniformly from all parts of the wallet. This isn’t usually very well recognized, but what matters more than “share of wallet” (of course that matters) is the “tranche of wallet” that this particular product sits in.

I don’t think I need to give a rigorous proof for this – but some spending is more equal than others. For example, if you are dirt poor and have only ten rupees left in your pocket, you would rather buy a loaf of bread than buy a tube of lipstick. Some goods are more important than the others. “Necessities” they call them. The rest become “luxuries”. Even the “luxuries” are not homogeneous – there are various tranches in that.

So the aim for the product manager should be to get into the deeper tranches of the customer’s wallet (assuming that the top tranche is the “equity tranche” – the one that takes the first hit when spending has to be cut). Targeting the top tranche may be a good business in good times, but when things go even slightly bad, spending on this product is likely to take a hit and thus the “share of wallet” falls dramatically. Getting into a deeper tranche means more insurance, so to say.

In the world of  CDOs (from where I borrow this tranche, equity, etc. terminology), people who take on the equity tranche and other more risky tranches do so only in exchange for a premium – basically that you need to be paid a premium amount (compared to lower tranches) during good times so that it compensates for lack of income in the bad times. So this means that if you are trying to target the most disposable part of the wallet (i.e. the part of wallet that takes the first hit when spending has to be cut), you better be a premium player and make enough money during good times.

So the basic insight is that. The more disposable spending on your product is for your customer, the more the premium that you have to charge. Some products such as high end fashion accessories seem to have got it right. Extremely disposable spending, which leads to volatility of income; balanced by extremely high margins which make good money in good times.

Certain other products, however, don’t seem to have got it right. One example that comes to mind is Indian IT. Some of the offerings of Indian IT companies come near the disposable end of their customers’ wallets. However, to compensate for this, they don’t seem to charge enough of a premium. So they make “normal” profits during good times, and sub-normal profits during bad times – leading to an average of sub-par performance.

So before you enter a business, see which part of your customer’s wallet you are targeting. See if the returns that you will get out of this business in good times will be enough to tide you over during bad times. And only then invest. Of course, before the 2007-present downturn happened, people had no idea what bad times were, and thus entered into risky businesses without enough of a risk premium.