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Category Archives: Investing

Luck Meets Perseverance: The Creation of IBM’s Competitive Advantage

On Monday October 28, 1929, the stock market took one of the worst single-day tumbles anyone alive might have seen, with the Dow Jones averages falling about 13%. The next day, October 29th, the market dropped yet again, a decline of 12%. By the end of the year, the Dow Jones average was down more than 45% from its high of 381. Market historians are familiar with the rest of the story: The sickening slide would not stop at 45%, but continue until 1932 to reach a low of 41 on the Dow, a decline of about 90% from peak to trough. American business was in a major Depression. But at least one businessman would decide that, like General Erwin Rommel would say years later, the path was not out, but through.

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International Business Machines, better known as IBM, was created from the ashes of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R) in 1917 by Thomas J. Watson, who’d learned his business skills at the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Before Watson’s reorganization of C-T-R, the company was basically in three businesses: computing scales (to weigh and compute the cost of a product being weighed), time clocks (to calculate and record wages), and tabulating machines (which used punch cards to add up figures and sort them). Watson’s first act of genius was to recognize that the future of IBM was not going to be time cards or scales, but in helping businesses do their work more effectively and with a lot less labor. He set out to do just that with his tabulating machines.

The problem was, IBM’s products weren’t yet all that different from its competitors’, and the company was small. IBM’s main tabulating product was the Hollerith machine, created by Herman Hollerith in Washington D.C. in 1890 to improve the Census tabulating process, of all things. (It sounds mundane, but he saved the government $5 million and did the work in about 1/8th of the time.) By the late 1910s, the Hollerith machine had a major competitor in the Powers Accounting Company, which had a similar product that was easier to use and more advanced than the Hollerith.

Hollerith_Punched_Card
Hollerith Punch Card

 

HollerithMachine.CHM
Hollerith Machine

 

Watson knew he had to push the research and development of his best product, and he did, hiring bright engineers like Fred Carroll from NCR, who would go on to be known for his Carroll Press, which allowed IBM to mass-produce the punch cards which did the “tabulating” in the pre-electronic days. By the mid 1920s, IBM had the lead. The plan was set in late 1927.

Watson then pointed to where he wanted IBM to go. ”There isn’t any limit for the tabulating business for many years to come,” he said. “We have just scratched the surface in this division. I expect the bulk of increased business to come from the tabulating end, because the potentialities are greater, and we have done so little in the way of developing our machines in this field.”

Underneath that statement lay a number of reasons—other than the thrill of new technology—why Watson zeroed in on the punch card business. When seen together, the reasons clicked like a formula for total domination. IBM would never be able to make sure it was the world leader in scales or time clocks, but it could be certain that it was the absolute lord of data processing.

[…]

Watson had no epiphanies. No voice spoke to him about the future of data processing. He didn’t have a grand vision for turning IBM into a punch card company. He got there little by little, one observation after another, over a period of 10 to 12 years.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

Watson’s logical, one-foot-at-a-time approach was reminiscent of Sir William Osler’s dictum: Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. And with a strategy of patenting its proprietary punch-cards, making them exclusively usable with IBM tabulators and sorters, IBM was one of the market darlings in the lead-up to 1929. Between 1927 and 1929 alone, IBM rose about four-fold on the back of 20-30% annual growth in its profits.

But it was still a small company with a lot of competition, and the punch card system was notoriously unreliable at times. He had a great system to hook in his customers, but the data processing market was still young — many businesses wouldn’t adopt it. And then came the fall.

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As the stock market dropped by the day and the Depression got on, the economy itself began to shrink in 1930. GDP went down 8% that year, and then another 7% the following year. Thousands of banks failed and unemployment would eventually test 30%, a figure that itself was misleading; the modern concept of “underemployment” hadn’t been codified, but if it had, it probably would have dwarfed 30%. An architect working as a lowly draftsman had a job, but he’d still fallen on hard times. Everyone had.

Tom Watson’s people wondered what was to become of IBM. If businesses didn’t have money, how could they purchase tabulators and punch cards? Even if it would save them money in the long run, too many businesses had cut their capital spending to the bone. The market for office spending was down 50% in 1930.

Watson’s response was to push. Hard. So hard that he’d take IBM right up to the brink.

IBM could beat the Depression, Watson believed. He reasoned that only 5 percent of business accounting functions were mechanized, leaving a huge market untapped. Surely there was room to keep selling machines, even in difficult times. Watson also reasoned that the need for IBM machines was so great, if businesses put off buying them now, certainly they’d buy them later, when the economy picked up. His logic told him that the pent-up demand would explode when companies decided to buy again. He wanted IBM to be ready to take advantage of that demand.

He’d keep the factories building machines and parts, stockpiling the products in warehouses. In fact, between 1929 and 1932, he increased IBM’s production capacity by one-third.

Watson’s greatest risk was running out of time. If IBM’s revenue dropped off or flattened because of the Depression, the company would still have enough money to keep operating for two years, maybe three. If IBM’s revenue continued to falter past 1933, the burden of running the factories and inventory would threaten IBM’s financial stability.

[…]

Watson’s logic led him to make what looked to outsiders like another insane wager. On January 12, 1932, Watson announced that IBM would spend $1 million—nearly 6 percent of its total annual revenue— to build one of the first corporate research labs. The colonial-style brick structure in Endicott would house all of IBM’s inventors and engineers. Watson played up the symbolism for all it was worth. He would create instead of destroy, despite the economic plague.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

Most companies pulled back, and for good reason. Demand was rapidly shrinking, and IBM’s decision to spend money expanding productive capacity, research, and employment would be suicide if demand didn’t return soon. All of that unused capacity was costly and would go to waste. Watson took an enormous risk, but he also had faith that the American economy would recover its dynamism. If it did, IBM would come out on the other side untouchable.

Somehow, Watson had to stimulate demand. He had to come up with products that companies couldn’t resist, whatever the economic conditions. Again, thanks to Charles Kettering’s influence, Watson believed that R&D would drive sales. (ed: Kettering was chief engineer at General Motors.) So Watson decided to build a lab, pull engineers together, and get them charged up to push the technology forward.

Throughout the 1930s, IBM cranked out new products and innovation, finally getting its technology ahead of Remington Rand or any other potential competitors.

[…]

Within a few years, Watson’s gamble of manufacturing looked disastrous. As IBM pumped increasing amounts of money into operations and growth, revenue from 1929 to 1934 stalled, wavering between $17 million and $19 million a year. IBM edged toward insolvency. In 1932, IBM’s stock price fell to 1921 levels and stayed there—11 years of gains wiped out.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

By 1935, IBM was still stagnating. Watson made the smart move to get out of the money-losing scale business and use the money to keep the remaining businesses afloat, but he was drowning in excess capacity, inventions be damned.

Then IBM got a stroke of luck that it would ride for almost 50 years.

After all of his pushing and all of his investment, after the impossible decision to push IBM to the brink, Tom Watson was rewarded with The Social Security Act of 1935, part of FDR’s New Deal. It was perfect.

No single flourish of a pen had ever created such a gigantic information processing problem. The act established Social Security in America—a national insurance system that required workers to pay into a fund while employed so they could draw payments out of it once they retired, or if a wage-earning spouse died. To make the system work, every business had to track every employee’s hours, wages, and the amount that must be paid to Social Security. The business then had to put those figures in a form that could be reported to the federal government. Then the government had to process all those millions of reports, track the money, and send checks to those who should get them.

Overnight, demand for accounting machines soared. Every business that had them needed them more. An officer for the store chain Woolworth told IBM that keeping records for Social Security was going to cost the company $250,000 a year. Businesses that didn’t have the machines wanted them. The government needed them by the boatload.

Only one company could meet the demand: IBM. It had warehouses full of machines and parts and accessories, and it could immediately make more because its factories were running, finely tuned, and fully staffed. Moreover, IBM had been funding research and introducing new products, so it had better, faster, more reliable machines than Remington Rand or any other company. IBM won the contract to do all of the New Deal’s accounting—the biggest project to date to automate the government…

This period of time became IBM’s slingshot. Revenue jumped from $19 million in 1934 to $21 million in 1935. From there it kept going up: $25 million in 1936, $31 million in 1937. It would climb unabated for the next 45 years. From that moment until the 1980s, IBM would utterly dominate the data processing industry—a record of leadership that was unmatched by any industrial company in history.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

By combining aggressive opportunism and a great deal of luck, IBM was forged in the depths of the Great Depression. Like John D. Rockefeller before him, who bought up refineries during periods of depression in the oil industry, and Warren Buffett after him, who scooped up loads of cheap stocks when the stock market was crumbling in the 1970s, Watson decided that pushing ahead was the only way out.

History certainly didn’t have to go his way — FDR might not have been elected or might not have been able to enact Social Security. Even if he’d done it two years later, IBM still might never have made it.

But Watson’s courage and leadership did open the possibly of serendipitous fortune for IBM if the world didn’t end. Like oxygen combining with fuel to create internal combustion, those elements forged a monstrous competitive advantage when the match was finally lit.

Still Interested? Check out the excellent The Maverick and his Machine by Kevin Maney, where the excerpts above come from.

Second-Level Thinking: What Smart People Use to Outperform

“Experience is what you got when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
Howard Marks

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Second Order Thinking

Successful decision making requires thoughtful attention to many separate aspects.

Decision making is as much art as science. The goal, if we have one, is not to make perfect decisions but rather to make better decisions than average. To do this we require either good luck or better insight. And since luck isn’t really much of a plan, we should probably focus on better insight.

In most of life you can get a step ahead of others by going to the gym or the library, or even a better school. In thinking, however, a lot of what you’d think gets you ahead is only window dressing.

Would be thinkers and deciders can attend the best schools, take the best courses and, if they are lucky, attach themselves to the best mentors. Yet only a few of them will achieve the skills and superior insight necessary to be an above average thinker. And we live in a world that, if it rewards anything, rewards better decisions. The rest is increasingly automated.

But how do we get there in a world where everyone else is also smart and well-informed? How do we get there in a world that is increasingly becoming computerized? You must find an edge. You must think differently.

In his exceptional book, The Most Important Thing, Howard Marks hits on the concept of second-level thinking.

First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority). All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in “The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.” Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.

Second-level thinkers take into account a lot of what we put into our decision journals. Things like, What is the range of possible outcomes? What’s the probability I’m right? What’s the follow-on? How could I be wrong?

“Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.” Click To Tweet

The real difference for me is that first-level thinkers are the people that look for things that are simple, easy, and defendable. Second-level thinkers push harder and don’t accept the first conclusion.

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“It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.”
— Charlie Munger

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Marks writes:

First-level thinkers think the same way other first-level thinkers do about the same things, and they generally reach the same conclusions. By definition, this can’t be the route to superior results.

This is where things get interesting. Extraordinary performance comes from being different. It must be that way. Of course, below average performance comes from being different too — on the downside.

So it’s not enough to be different — you also need to be correct. “The problem is that extraordinary performance comes only from correct nonconsensual forecasts, but nonconsensual forecasts are hard to make, hard to make correctly and hard to act on,” writes Marks. The goal is not blind divergence but rather rather a way of thinking that sets you apart from others.

In short, you can’t do the same things that other people are doing and expect to outperform.

We can look at this as a simple two-by-two matrix (via The Most Important Thing).

Second Level Thinking Matrix

I’m generalizing a bit here, but if your thoughts and behavior are conventional, you’re likely to get conventional results. Steve Jobs was right.

This is where loss aversion comes in. Most people are simply unwilling to be wrong because that means they might look like a fool. Yet this is a grave mistake. The ability to risk looking like an idiot is necessary for being different. You never look like a fool if you look like everyone else. (Bringing to mind Keynes’ dictum: Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.) Only by doing — or, in our case, thinking — something different do you put yourself at risk.

JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES

Conventional thinking and behavior is safe. But it guarantees mediocrity. You need to know when your performance is likely to be improved by being unconventional.

Here’s a pro tip. If you want to have fun at work this week, do one of two things. First, start digging below the surface of people’s opinions. Ask them why they think what they think. Second, ask them to take the other side of the argument.

Second-Level Thinking: What Smart People Use to Outperform Click To Tweet

Investing: The Rules of the Road

Investing money can seem a little rudderless at times.

One day you hear that stocks are risky and the next that they’re indispensable. Some days it seems like stocks only go up and sometimes that they only go down. Real estate used to seem like an automatic path to wealth, and then the housing crisis hit. For the uninitiated, it sometimes seems there are no central truths. And unlike certain fields, we all have to deal with money. We can’t “opt out” from financial concerns unless we plan to live in a monastery, and it is useful for all of us to understand the basic ideas.

Investing is not a science but a craft, and a craftsman needs tools. In the case of investing, the tools are mostly mental. If we accumulate a few simple mental tools, we can start evaluating the claims of experts, salesmen, or simply well-intentioned friends.

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Decisions Under Uncertainty

"We confuse risk and uncertainty."
“We confuse risk and uncertainty.”

If you’re a knowledge worker you make decisions everyday. In fact, whether you realize it or not, decisions are your job.

Decisions are how you make a living. Of course not every decision is easy. Decisions tend to fall into different categories.  The way we approach the actual decision should vary based on category.

Here are a few basic categories that decisions fall into.

There are decisions where:

  1. Outcomes are known. In this case the range of outcomes is known and the individual outcome is also known. This is the easiest way to make decisions. If I hold out my hand and drop a ball, it will fall to the ground. I know this with near certainly.
  2. Outcomes are unknown, but probabilities are known.In this case the range of outcomes are known but the individual outcome is unknown. This is risk. Think of this as going to Vegas and gambling. Before you set foot at the table, all of the outcomes are known as are the probabilities of each. No outcome surprises an objective third party.
  3. Outcomes are unknown and probabilities are unknown. In this case the distribution of outcomes are unknown and the individual outcomes are necessarily unknown. This is uncertainty.

We often think we’re making decisions in #2 but we’re really operating in #3. The difference may seem trivial but it makes a world of difference.

Decisions Under Uncertainty

Ignorance is a state of the world where some possible outcomes are unknown: when we’ve moved from #2 to #3.

One way to realize how ignorant we are is to look back, read some old newspapers, and see how often the world did something that wasn’t even imagined.

Some examples include the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the financial meltdown.

We’re prepared for a world much like #2 — the world of risk, with known outcomes and probability that can be estimated, yet we live in a world with a closer resemblance to #3.

Read part two of this series: Two types of ignorance.

References: Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature (Joy and Zeckhauser).

Basically, It’s Over: A Parable About How One Nation Came To Financial Ruin

An excellent parable by Charlie Munger on how one nation came to financial ruin.

In the early 1700s, Europeans discovered in the Pacific Ocean a large, unpopulated island with a temperate climate, rich in all nature’s bounty except coal, oil, and natural gas. Reflecting its lack of civilization, they named this island “Basicland.”

The Europeans rapidly repopulated Basicland, creating a new nation. They installed a system of government like that of the early United States. There was much encouragement of trade, and no internal tariff or other impediment to such trade. Property rights were greatly respected and strongly enforced. The banking system was simple. It adapted to a national ethos that sought to provide a sound currency, efficient trade, and ample loans for credit-worthy businesses while strongly discouraging loans to the incompetent or for ordinary daily purchases.

Moreover, almost no debt was used to purchase or carry securities or other investments, including real estate and tangible personal property. The one exception was the widespread presence of secured, high-down-payment, fully amortizing, fixed-rate loans on sound houses, other real estate, vehicles, and appliances, to be used by industrious persons who lived within their means. Speculation in Basicland’s security and commodity markets was always rigorously discouraged and remained small. There was no trading in options on securities or in derivatives other than “plain vanilla” commodity contracts cleared through responsible exchanges under laws that greatly limited use of financial leverage.

In its first 150 years, the government of Basicland spent no more than 7 percent of its gross domestic product in providing its citizens with essential services such as fire protection, water, sewage and garbage removal, some education, defense forces, courts, and immigration control. A strong family-oriented culture emphasizing duty to relatives, plus considerable private charity, provided the only social safety net.

The tax system was also simple. In the early years, governmental revenues came almost entirely from import duties, and taxes received matched government expenditures. There was never much debt outstanding in the form of government bonds.

As Adam Smith would have expected, GDP per person grew steadily. Indeed, in the modern area it grew in real terms at 3 percent per year, decade after decade, until Basicland led the world in GDP per person. As this happened, taxes on sales, income, property, and payrolls were introduced. Eventually total taxes, matched by total government expenditures, amounted to 35 percent of GDP. The revenue from increased taxes was spent on more government-run education and a substantial government-run social safety net, including medical care and pensions.

A regular increase in such tax-financed government spending, under systems hard to “game” by the unworthy, was considered a moral imperative—a sort of egality-promoting national dividend—so long as growth of such spending was kept well below the growth rate of the country’s GDP per person.
Basicland also sought to avoid trouble through a policy that kept imports and exports in near balance, with each amounting to about 25 percent of GDP. Some citizens were initially nervous because 60 percent of imports consisted of absolutely essential coal and oil. But, as the years rolled by with no terrible consequences from this dependency, such worry melted away.

Basicland was exceptionally creditworthy, with no significant deficit ever allowed. And the present value of large “off-book” promises to provide future medical care and pensions appeared unlikely to cause problems, given Basicland’s steady 3 percent growth in GDP per person and restraint in making unfunded promises. Basicland seemed to have a system that would long assure its felicity and long induce other nations to follow its example—thus improving the welfare of all humanity.

But even a country as cautious, sound, and generous as Basicland could come to ruin if it failed to address the dangers that can be caused by the ordinary accidents of life. These dangers were significant by 2012, when the extreme prosperity of Basicland had created a peculiar outcome: As their affluence and leisure time grew, Basicland’s citizens more and more whiled away their time in the excitement of casino gambling. Most casino revenue now came from bets on security prices under a system used in the 1920s in the United States and called “the bucket shop system.”

The winnings of the casinos eventually amounted to 25 percent of Basicland’s GDP, while 22 percent of all employee earnings in Basicland were paid to persons employed by the casinos (many of whom were engineers needed elsewhere). So much time was spent at casinos that it amounted to an average of five hours per day for every citizen of Basicland, including newborn babies and the comatose elderly. Many of the gamblers were highly talented engineers attracted partly by casino poker but mostly by bets available in the bucket shop systems, with the bets now called “financial derivatives.”

Many people, particularly foreigners with savings to invest, regarded this situation as disgraceful. After all, they reasoned, it was just common sense for lenders to avoid gambling addicts. As a result, almost all foreigners avoided holding Basicland’s currency or owning its bonds. They feared big trouble if the gambling-addicted citizens of Basicland were suddenly faced with hardship.

And then came the twin shocks. Hydrocarbon prices rose to new highs. And in Basicland’s export markets there was a dramatic increase in low-cost competition from developing countries. It was soon obvious that the same exports that had formerly amounted to 25 percent of Basicland’s GDP would now only amount to 10 percent. Meanwhile, hydrocarbon imports would amount to 30 percent of GDP, instead of 15 percent. Suddenly Basicland had to come up with 30 percent of its GDP every year, in foreign currency, to pay its creditors.

How was Basicland to adjust to this brutal new reality? This problem so stumped Basicland’s politicians that they asked for advice from Benfranklin Leekwanyou Vokker, an old man who was considered so virtuous and wise that he was often called the “Good Father.” Such consultations were rare. Politicians usually ignored the Good Father because he made no campaign contributions.

Among the suggestions of the Good Father were the following. First, he suggested that Basicland change its laws. It should strongly discourage casino gambling, partly through a complete ban on the trading in financial derivatives, and it should encourage former casino employees—and former casino patrons—to produce and sell items that foreigners were willing to buy. Second, as this change was sure to be painful, he suggested that Basicland’s citizens cheerfully embrace their fate. After all, he observed, a man diagnosed with lung cancer is willing to quit smoking and undergo surgery because it is likely to prolong his life.

The views of the Good Father drew some approval, mostly from people who admired the fiscal virtue of the Romans during the Punic Wars. But others, including many of Basicland’s prominent economists, had strong objections. These economists had intense faith that any outcome at all in a free market—even wild growth in casino gambling—is constructive. Indeed, these economists were so committed to their basic faith that they looked forward to the day when Basicland would expand real securities trading, as a percentage of securities outstanding, by a factor of 100, so that it could match the speculation level present in the United States just before onslaught of the Great Recession that began in 2008.

The strong faith of these Basicland economists in the beneficence of hypergambling in both securities and financial derivatives stemmed from their utter rejection of the ideas of the great and long-dead economist who had known the most about hyperspeculation, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes had famously said, “When the capital development of a country is the byproduct of the operations of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done.” It was easy for these economists to dismiss such a sentence because securities had been so long associated with respectable wealth, and financial derivatives seemed so similar to securities.

Basicland’s investment and commercial bankers were hostile to change. Like the objecting economists, the bankers wanted change exactly opposite to change wanted by the Good Father. Such bankers provided constructive services to Basicland. But they had only moderate earnings, which they deeply resented because Basicland’s casinos—which provided no such constructive services—reported immoderate earnings from their bucket-shop systems. Moreover, foreign investment bankers had also reported immoderate earnings after building their own bucket-shop systems—and carefully obscuring this fact with ingenious twaddle, including claims that rational risk-management systems were in place, supervised by perfect regulators. Naturally, the ambitious Basicland bankers desired to prosper like the foreign bankers. And so they came to believe that the Good Father lacked any understanding of important and eternal causes of human progress that the bankers were trying to serve by creating more bucket shops in Basicland.

Of course, the most effective political opposition to change came from the gambling casinos themselves. This was not surprising, as at least one casino was located in each legislative district. The casinos resented being compared with cancer when they saw themselves as part of a long-established industry that provided harmless pleasure while improving the thinking skills of its customers.

As it worked out, the politicians ignored the Good Father one more time, and the Basicland banks were allowed to open bucket shops and to finance the purchase and carry of real securities with extreme financial leverage. A couple of economic messes followed, during which every constituency tried to avoid hardship by deflecting it to others. Much counterproductive governmental action was taken, and the country’s credit was reduced to tatters. Basicland is now under new management, using a new governmental system. It also has a new nickname: Sorrowland.