Saturday, 28 July 2012

Who carries the flag tells something about your country

If you didn't stay up all night, that is if you are in India, you missed something. It was a lovely show. Olympic opening ceremonies have easily become the greatest show on earth. Beijing was awe inspiring in terms of sheer magnitude and scale. It was an almost impossible act to follow, but London did, in a very different way. You would have had to be a Brit or a complete Anglophile like me, to appreciate the nuances, but even otherwise, as a sheer spectacle it was magic.

This post is not about the ceremony, or the sport to follow. Its a lazy, and completely unscientific,  interpretation of national stereotypes from their choice of who would carry the country's flag in the parade !

Some nations simply go for glory - they give it to their most famous sportsman. Serbia gave it to Djokovic. Jamaica gave it to Usain Bolt. Veronica Campbell Brown, their senior sprinter amongst the women would have been a more logical choice, but who is more well known than Usain Bolt. Spain was led in by Pau Gasol, the NBA star.

Others gave it , not to their most successful athlete, but the one to whom their hearts went out. Australia let their women's basketball captain Lauren Jackson carry the flag. She'll never win gold , only because nobody can beat the US , but she has made Australia the second best team for so long and even in a country with so many gold medal winners, they let her lead them. The USA's choice was similar. Their logical choice would have been Kobe Bryant, their senior statesman in basketball and easily the most recognised and famous star. Or Michael Phelps, their most successful ever. Instead they gave it to Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who was voted in by their 500 strong team. So typical of that nation that they would elect their flag bearer . Both countries, sporting giants on whom success rests easily.

The individual class act was Switzerland. Roger Federer is easily the most well known Swiss athlete. He carried the flag in Beijing, but this time, he gave it to his doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka. Trust Federer to do something as classy as that.

The award for boldnesss should go to Zimbabwe. Kristy Coventry, their champion swimmer, carried the flag and she is easily their most successful and best sportsperson. But she is in virtual exile in the US , and is opposed to Robert Mugabe, although he has embraced her as a national treasure. Here she was, carrying their flag.

India's was easy. Leander Paes should have been the obvious choice as this is his fifth Olympics, but the man has aged badly and nobody likes him anymore. Abhinav Bhindra, Gagan Narang, Saina Nehwal and Vijender Singh, other possible candidates are all competing on Saturday or Sunday and had to miss the ceremony. So it fell on Sushil Kumar, bronze medalist from Beijing to carry the tricolour.

But the most disappointing act was China's. They had a clutch of great sportsmen and women who deserved to lead them in. Lin Dan, perhaps the greatest badminton player of all time. Liu Xiang, the 110 metre hurdler who is China's favourite sportsman - but they are so paranoid about the guy winning, that they wouldn't even let him go to the loo unchaperoned. No way they would let him risk four hours standing around. What about Li Na, French Open Champion from 2011. Or Sun Yang, the champion distance swimmer. Instead their criteria was that the flag bearer had to be male, had to be tall and had to be handsome. Yuk ! Yi Jianlian, a second rate basketball player led them in, even though China has won nothing in basketball and will never win either. His sole redeeming feature is that he is some 7 ft tall ! Come on China; you are the greatest sporting nation on earth. Do you have to be that insecure ??

The Games have begun. Ahhhh.; two weeks of sheer bliss.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Team USA Made in America Act

If ever there was a nonsensical piece of legislation addressing a farcically trivial issue it is the introduction of the "Team USA Made in America Act". If ever there was proof that US senators and congressmen do nothing useful, here it is.

A hullabaloo started when it was discovered that the US Olympic Team's uniforms for the London Olympics were actually made in China. Senators clambered over each other in expressing righteous indignation at this outrage. They are now passing a law that seeks to mandate that future olympic team uniforms have to be made in the US of A.

This triggered some admittedly nostalgic memories of my first ever post when I took up blogging three plus years ago. My very first post addressed precisely this issue; so much so that I couldn't resist dredging it up. 

Has much changed in three years ?


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Ramamritham acquires a new fan

My good friend Sriram, appears to have become a fan of Ramamritham, just like me. Sriram is an excellent blogger of incredible energy ; who else can keep the scorching pace of 2 or 3 quality posts a day.

His post of a few days ago, On the life sucking bureaucracy in India,  makes a very good read. Heartily endorse the post for readers of this blog.

Its a telling comment on our respective energy levels that by the time I have summoned up the effort to cross post, he has already made 3 newer posts despite the fact that he is traveling ! Ah, the advantages of being a younger man !!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Farewell, old girl

As you grow older, you start to yearn for the familiar. In an ever changing world, that's a real challenge.  Wouldn't it be nice if some things never changed. A fixed beacon in the cauldron that is the world ? Alas that can only be a pipe dream as there is nothing that is impervious to the passage of time. And so, when something that is long standing , finally succumbs to Father Time, it is time to shed a tear. Especially something that has stood for 71 years.

When I first went to London, there were two places I HAD to see immediately. The second of them was a trek to Tunbridge Wells in Kent to stand on the hallowed pitch where in 1983, one of the greatest cricket innings of all time happened - Kapil Dev's 175 that launched India on the path to World Cup victory. But the first, even above that sainted place, was for me, Bush House, the home of the BBC in the Strand. You can't enter the building, unless you are an employee, so I contented myself with gazing at its majestic facade in awe. And a visit to the BBC World Service shop, which you can enter, of course.

Bush House, for 71 years stood for something special. As the home of the BBC, it was virtually the centre of the world. Right through the decades , until about 15 years ago, BBC Radio was the window to the world for most of its population. I grew up before the internet era ; actually even before the TV era had really established itself. I became a global citizen thanks to the BBC. My education was 50% at school and 50% thanks to BBC World Service. Fiddling a small short wave transistor radio, and trying to listen through the static and crackle, and there would come the magic words - This is London.

The BBC is shifting homes and abandoning Bush House to move to fancier (and presumably cheaper) quarters in London. The logic is impeccable. Bush House was never made for the digital age. Its old world rooms and corridors are a positive nuisance for a modern office. And yet, and yet .......

The BBC itself has changed of course. World Service Radio (at least on the short wave) is more or less dead.  TV has taken over. Budget constraints are taking their toll. But then the BBC is not going away - its only Bush House that's retiring. So why the nostalgia ? Especially for a building that I haven't even been inside. I can't explain it, except that, at my age,  it seems to be the passing of an era.

In four days time, at precisely mid day in London, the last World Service news will be broadcast from Bush House.  From the next hour onwards, the News will still come bang on time, but from the new quarters. Its the same BBC. Its the same news. Its the same anchors. But, surely, it will not be the same. The world may perhaps not notice. But I will heave a big sigh.

One more familiar sight in the world will go down.  Farewell old girl. Here's a big hug. You will always be one of a kind.

Friday, 6 July 2012

CEO for 20 minutes

How would you like to be CEO for 20 minutes ? No this is not one of those employee motivation exercises, nor is it a joke. This is all too real.  That's precisely what happened to Bill Johnson the CEO designate of Duke Energy.

All this arose from a merger between Duke and Progress, two giant utility companies in the US. It is now the largest electric utility in the US. As is typical in such merger of giants, the CEO of Duke was to become the Chairman of the combined entity and the CEO of Progress, Bill Johnson, was to become the CEO of the combined entity. Regulatory and shareholder permissions were sought , and received. All very good. On 27th June, Bill Johnson signed his new employment contract and  that was that.

The merger was consummated at 4.00 PM on Monday 2nd July. Immediately thereafter the new Board met and sacked Bill Johnson. At 4.20 PM Johnson resigned - he resigned rather than refusing to do so, as he was getting a $10m settlement that way. CEO for 20 minutes.

This is not a tin pot company, nor is the Board a bunch of jokers (although you have to rethink that now). Both the companies are giants in their own right and the combined entity is a behemoth. And yet, did they seriously believe that they would get away with this sort of behaviour? Did they expect the regulators and the shareholders to keep quiet. Even a moron can see that this is probably the worst move that you can make.

Mergers and acquisitions are notoriously difficult to implement. More go wrong than right. But if you start off like this, what chance do you have of any success ?

The future is all too predictable. The Board will defend for 3 days that all was right. Public and regulatory outcry will build up. Then the Chairman will resign. As will a few more Board members, if not all. A new CEO will be appointed. More turmoil. And the acquisition will steadily go downhill. Two years from now, Progress will be divested at one tenth the acquisition value.

It boggles the mind how corporations can monkey around like this. They seem to be their own worst enemies.

PS. Since all this drama is happening in Gils's current hometown,  perhaps, the esteemed blogger might pen a first hand account in the comments section :)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

When "information" equals garbage

It is a fundamental tenet of capitalism that an investor should be fully informed of all matters relating to his investment. Over the years, regulatory authorities have been increasing disclosure requirements so that there is as much transparency as possible. But has this gone too far ? And has the overreaching legal recourses, especially in the US, led to the purpose being defeated ? No this is not a boring, dry post. Read on.

Take the case of Manchester United's IPO filing (if you ask what Manchester United is, I'll clobber you). IPO filers are required to disclose the risks associated with their business. Fair enough. But look at Man U's risks disclosed. They have listed 51 risks. Amongst them are such gems as
  • There could be a decline in the popularity of football (beggars belief)
  •  To service our indebtedness, we require cash, and our ability to generate cash is subject to many factors beyond our control. ( Ha Ha)
  • We are dependent upon the performance and popularity of our first team. (Really ?? - this is like a company saying that we are dependent on the popularity of our products)
  • If we fail to properly manage our anticipated growth, our business could suffer. (this is supposed to be an earth shattering revelation)
  • Our international expansion and operations in foreign markets expose us to risks associated with international sales and operations (brilliant insight which we otherwise did not have).
There are 51 such gems and monuments to inanity. Obviously lawyers have written this piece of garbage, including everything they can possibly think of. I am surprised that they did not add the following, which I will freely offer for inclusion in the filing
  •  Wayne Rooney (Man U's star striker) might develop a pimple on his ass that might prevent him from scoring goals
  •  An asteroid might hit the earth tomorrow
  • All other teams in the league might gang up and refuse to play Man U saying that they are fed up of getting thumped.
  • The queen might die and Prince Charles might succeed her (Prince Charles is a known Burnley supporter)
  • China may pass a law banning the Chinese from wearing Man U T shirts on the grounds that the Dalai Lama visited Old Trafford for a game.
This disclosure business has gone too much. To cover their asses, lawyers disclose a mountain of irrelevant stuff. Any sane follower is buried under a ton of garbage. Take Annual Reports of companies. They have become so bulky and big, that nobody reads them anymore. They are also written in such complex legalese that they are largely unintelligible to anybody. The only thing that anybody even sees , if they ever open one of them, is the constipated faces of the pompous Board. So much for the riveting reading annual reports make.

The purpose of full disclosure has been completely thwarted. Only three classes of people read these things these days. Lawyers who wrote the gibberish in the first place (I am not entirely convinced that they read it, but we shall give them the benefit of doubt). Lawyers looking for ways to sue. And finally a few unemployed  bloggers like yours truly.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

There's something very rotten in Finance

Can a whole industry be rotten ? Definitely not. As in any field, you should expect the good, the bad and the ugly. But increasingly it is difficult to spot anything good with the financial services industry. Consider the latest scandal to hit the headlines - the manipulation of LIBOR by Barclays and 20 other banks.

LIBOR (which stands for London inter bank offer rate) is one of the prime interest rate benchmarks in the world. Many interest rates are fixed at LIBOR plus a premium. LIBOR should therefore be an impartial market rate based on which a whole lot of other transactions revolve. But it now comes out that Barclays has been manipulating this rate for a while. A fine of $450m has been imposed on Barclays and a probe is on with 20 other banks.

I know greed is a universal vice and an industry that directly deals with money is especially vulnerable to an overdose of greed. Yet it would be difficult to find an industry that has so allowed its core to rot . One after another, examples of insane risk taking, outright fraud, manipulation and criminal behaviour is coming to light. Action by governments has been patchy at best.

There is almost no  financial player that has remained untouched. Mention banks and every bank of renown has been in trouble. Mention insurance and the likes of AIG and Marsh & McLennan come to mind. I don't even need to comment on the likes of hedge funds and other less savoury players. Even the most reputable names in the business (Barclays is one of them) have been caught in wrongdoing. How can this be - a whole industry cannot be bad ?

The best brains in the world go into finance. And this is the field that seems to have the deepest rot.  Says something about the value systems of bright people. The state of the industry has gone beyond outrageous levels and has to be stopped.

Draconian action has to be launched by governments against the industry. It has to be made the most boring business in the world - so much so that the best minds recoil from going there.  All the scare mongering that capital for business would dry up should be discarded - there is enough capital in the world and like water, it will find its way to the best businesses. If some forms of risk management become impossible - it doesn't matter; the plethora of so called hedging products have created more risk than provided insulation against them.

The Reserve Bank of India stands out , amongst global central banks, by being bulldogish and refusing to allow any form of sex appeal in Indian banking. They have tried their best to keep Indian banking a boring business. By and large Indian financial institutions have escaped from major disasters - we have the RBI to thank for this. 

I hate to say this, but even Ramamritham has his uses !

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