Review: The Physics of Wall Street

James Owen Weatherall examines the history of maths and physics which hasThe Physics of Wall Street underpinned not only the rise of Wall Street but all other financial exchanges and markets. It’s an informative read that feels lite even though it delves into deep and complex maths.

Increasingly financial models have been blamed for many market crashes and are even described as Weapons of Mass Destruction. In this easily accessible book, James convincingly argues that financial models should not be abandoned but constantly tweaked and improved. They are essential to the mechanics of our international exchanges.

Definitely, a book to read.

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Calories

I guess it’s human nature to immediately implement or listen to a doctor’s recommendation rather than the constant feedback from your wife or life partner. Much like a heart attack would spur into action an immediate lifestyle change, which was part of the conversation the doctor was having with me yesterday.

That being said I’m one of those special people whose body can’t process sugar properly resulting in significantly more bad cholesterol finding a home in all the wrong places in me. If I was producing enough good cholesterol this would not be a problem, but given my current trajectory I’ll probably be a diabetic and suffer heart disease along with a heart attack at some stage. All grim news just before the holiday season really kicks off. While emphasising balance the doctor also slipped in a move away from all things alcohol in the short term.

Being an avid beer, whisky and tequila consumer this was not good news not even red wine escaped the clutches of this serious conversation. Given the nature of things going cold turkey isn’t an option especially over the very vibrant festive season. So, in my infinite wisdom I’ve researched what the calorie count is for my favourite alcoholic beverages and slotted in a slice of bread as a reference. As an FYI, coffee has no calories. For comparison purposes 100 grams = 3.38 shots, calorie data sourced from USDA

Calories Grams Calories per shot Equivalent slice of bread
White bread (per slice) 79 30 23
Red wine 85 100 25 0.3
Tequila 231 100 68 0.9
Whisky 250 100 74 0.9
Gin 263 100 78 1.0
Beer 43 100 13 0.2
Monster 42 100 12 0.2
Red Bull 45 100 13 0.2

At my treadmill running pace, I can smash 232 calories in 20 mins, so the odds are stacked against me for now. It’s not all doom and gloom though, best is to determine how many calories you need to remain healthy and what percentage of those can be good or bad cholesterol. Fortunately we are all built and process carbs differently.

My sabbatical

After a 2 week self imposed cellphone usage sabbatical, I’ve come to a few realisations:

  • Comms with loved-ones/friends are disrupted: Email and smses can’t replace WhatsApp.
  • Banking: Without an active cellphone online payments to new accounts or purchasing through a third party retailer like takealot, even when using a desktop is impossible. The authentication processes for payments in our hyper connected world require a cellphone for our own protection, which is a good thing.
  • Directions: Using printed maps and directions are irritating and not worth the effort. The convenience of Google Maps on a mobile device is irreplaceable and significantly more safer when using while driving. Not to mention the accident reports and time to destination functionality which is a godsend.
  • Public crutch: Holding a cellphone in your hand gives you something to do rather than converse with somebody, especially in a confined space like a lift. It removes the opportunity for small talk and getting to know colleagues. On the flip side it removes the awkwardness that some might feel with making small talk.

I don’t intend trying another sabbatical anytime soon but am convinced I can survive without a connected mobile device.

FUTURE INVESTING

It is increasingly becoming obvious that millennials prefer being self directed in their choices, trusting peer review forums more than product brochures. Within their investment decisions this is becoming more prevalent as non-intermediated investments continue to tick up. Asset managers who do not embrace this trend will struggle to gain and retain market share. Not only are the number of self directed investors increasing the number of advisors specifically independents in the industry are projected to decrease as regulatory changes under the “Twin Peaks” model are implemented in South Africa.

The availability of low cost investment alternatives specifically Exchange Traded Funds, coupled with an easy to invest online application process which is user centric are providing further impetus to a changing landscape.  Looking beyond migrating existing businesses away from legacy systems. It does beg the question why are firms hesitant to embrace a market which inherently is low maintenance yet has the potential to be a sustainable profit generator?

Awakening the Force with Infographics

Visual messaging, be it a video or infographic has found a special place in our everyday existence. Good visual design should be part of the the holy grail of interaction with the consumer, yet few companies consistently deliver. Apple probably is one of the few large companies to hit the sweet spot more often than not. With this backdrop, it is no surprise infographics have become a key messaging platform within a marketing campaign. Not only does it convey a consistent message in miliseconds it allows the viewer to focus on specific products or service components while having access to a bigger picture the company is trying to convey.

Crucially a good infographic should include the following considerations:

  • Simplicity: An overly complex infographic with many paths is confusing and will result in viewer frustration and a lost opportunity for positive brand engagement.
  • Consistent messaging: A golden messaging thread should be weaved through the infographic as a whole and be part of well structured campaign not an isolated element. All to often an inforgraphic appears to be an after thought.
  • Visually engaging: Viewers should feel incentivised to read the infographic not cringe as they follow the content trail. Being on Brand is key but infographics allow for brand extension with clever visual elements and the use of COLOUR.
  • A BIG ASS Call To Action: CTAs are sometimes overlooked when designing an infographic. The infographic is not a CTA, it only visually portrays existing product or service information differently.

Infographics are a powerful marketing tool and should not be relegated to being viewed as a graphic heavy document with words slapped on it. A well thought through and executed infographic can be the start of a long fruitful conversation.

Happy to hear your thoughts?

Avoiding spin: Corporate Culture

Recently I had the privilege of attending a culture workshop at work co-facilitated by the brilliant Trevor Hough.

Culture

Culture workshops are generally a binary experience for employees. Either you like it or view it as a waste of time. I’m inherently overly optimistic and generally a glass half full type of guy and thoroughly enjoy culture workshops. If attendees are fully immersed and honest it’s a magical experience, but in most cases employees grind through the actual sessions as a chore. This in all likelihood stems from the view employee opinions are overlooked and the true cynic will argue it’s a witch hunt to unpack what employees think about management. I was however suitably impressed by Trevor’s pragmatic approach, clearly sculptured over years of experience as an Organisational Development specialist.

Subsequent to our workshop Trevor has written a rather interesting post which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce below. Not to be confused with Christina Aguilera’s 1999 hit song Genie in a Bottle, Trevor’s analogies work really well in conveying the power of the genie.

Genie in the bottle – Corporate culture

Having just finished reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I was left thinking about the fairy tale of the genie in the bottle. Sapiens looks at the possible reasons why we as a species have come to rule the planet. He hypothesizes that it is our unique ability to organise in large social groups that has allowed us to do so. No other species is able to organise in large groups in complex ways, as far as we know.

If we pitted 5 humans against 5 chimps, Yuval’s money and mine would be on the chimps. However if we increased that number to 500, humans would win hands down. Harari, with substantial research data, postulates that what allows us to organise in this way is our ability to imagine. We are a species of meaning makers, of storytellers and believers. Unlike other species, we as Homo sapiens believe in myths.

We believe in gods, we believe in companies, we believe in human rights, and probably our biggest  belief is the money. None of these exist in objective reality. However they bring thousands, even millions of people together under a single belief system. You could not get a chimp to hand over his bunch of bananas on the promise that the piece of paper you just gave him would buy him many more bananas in the future.

It is because we take these belief systems as “truths” that allows us to organise in large complex groups. We are coded to join together with others who believe in the same “truths” by complex neuro-chemical discharges. It is this that (that) allows us to flourish as large complex groups.

Culture functions in the same way. Cultures are belief systems that allow groups of people to function together and feel a sense of community; they could be viewed as the glue that binds us. So long as the majority of the group believes in the same things, they are bound together.

Corporate culture is no different. Corporations are a very new phenomenon in the evolutionary life span of humans. They, like so much else we believe in, are imaginal entities. Take Apple: you cannot see it as an objective entity. Yes you can see its products, you can see its advertising campaigns and you can see the people who work for it, however you cannot see it. Companies are a construction made up by legal minds to create limited liability for people who started them. Companies are in fact legally seen as fictitious people.

The people who join these companies buy into the powerful belief of its existence, as we all do. Buying into the belief of the organisation existing we bring our own interpretations and desires of what that organisation will give us in return. These can include remuneration, career development, security and respect. We might refer to this as the psychological contract. It happens in all organisations. Take religions: in return for our belief, prayers and specific behaviors we are promised eternal life.

This might sound quite depressing, however we need to remember that it is exactly because of our belief systems that we have come to dominate the other species on the planet. Chimps or baboons don’t use iPhones or congregate in their millions to celebrate Independence Day.

So what does this mean for us in terms of corporate culture, and what use does understanding it have?

In order for any belief system to have power it needs to be believed by the majority of that group. In other words for the belief system to have power the genie needs to remain in the bottle. There will always be outliers, however it is the majority that hold the group together. So if we take it as a given that corporate culture is a belief system, we then need to ensure that how we articulate the culture is believed by the majority of employees.

Too often in my work as an Organisational Development consultant I have come across companies and consultancies that undertake work on culture as an exercise in describing aspirations or creating spin. What is aspirational is not always what the majority of employees experience on a day-to-day basis. So when the culture slides or glossy pamphlets are rolled out everyone nods their heads, then have a good chuckle around the water fountain. They silently collude with what is said for numerous reasons. Often out of fear of being ejected from the group. The old story of the emperor without clothes comes to mind. Whatever the reason, the story has lost its power and people no longer believe it.The genie is out the bottle.

 In organisations that thrive, what is said about culture and what is believed, match pretty accurately. People literally have drunk the kool aid. The power of the belief is that people pull together and feel a personal connection to the organization. As happens in nations and armies, buying into a belief produces amazing collaborative results. It is what makes us human. It can also be what allows us to commit atrocities.

Milgram in his 1960s experiments showed us the dark side of such believing, and it is something we have seen repeatedly over history. We have seen it in Nazi Germany in the belief of the Aryan race, in South Africa with white supremacy and it happened with bankers in the sub-prime crisis. In all these cases the majority bought into a belief and committed heinous acts in its name.

This therefore makes the process of culture articulation and culture assessment a complex and serious business that I don’t believe should be sentimental or smell of spin. The role of those that attempt to articulate such important beliefs is very similar to that of anthropologists. Experts in building trust, observing and understanding context, but importantly have enough personal distance from the belief system. Organizational consultants real value add is in understanding the power that resides in culture, both in driving performance and increasing engagement, but also in the destructive shadow side.

It is an interesting question whether it is the role of these “anthropologists” to speak another “truth” to those in power, and it is also interesting what the consequences of revealing might be. It is a complex position in that by revealing the different aspects of belief systems, as consultants we bash up against personal and social defenses of members of the system. We then place ourselves in the position of being ejected by the system.

I believe that whatever road we take is paradoxically grounded in our own personal beliefs of values and ethics. This is further complicated by those consulting in the financial services sector where the regulator is beginning to take a stronger interest in corporate culture.

Whatever road we take as organizational consultants, we should understand the power of the genie.

Thinking #TFSA?

After years of monitoring the success of the UK’s Individual Saving Accounts. SA has finally launched it’s version of the ISA, the Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA). Simplistically the product is a tax-free savings vehicle not a retirement plan. In its bid to encourage more saving after the less than exciting roll-out of the SA Retail Savings Bonds, the SA Government has allowed approved financial services product providers to include a myriad of investment options like unit trusts (UT) and exchange traded funds (ETF) within a TFSA offering. Importantly it has allowed investors to invest in UTs which if managed appropriately should increase in value over time while an ETF will have its value determined by the index it is tracking.This is where the TFSA comes into its own. Any increase in the unit price the investor receives will not be liable for the dreaded Capital Gains Tax it would have, in other types of investments. This alone should be a significant incentive for any long-term investor! Tax on any interest earned is also avoided. It’s not often a free lunch is so easily available.

Product providers are however prohibited from including investments attracting any performance fees. This has limited the number of approved UTs from the larger and recently more successful asset managers being included in TFSA products. In addition an investor is only allowed investing a maximum of R30,000 per tax year and a lifetime contribution of R500,000 across all TFSA products irrespective of the number of withdrawals concluded per tax year. Also remember no benefit rollovers are allowed, thus if you don’t use it you lose it. Where possible each family member should have an account opened for them to achieve the maximum lifetime benefit. Based on the UK experience I’m sure the maximum allowable investment per tax year will increase over time and this announcement should be made during the yearly Budget speech of the Minister of Finance.

When selecting a TFSA product amongst other considerations, the following are important clearly not the most important:

  • What is the TFSA product cost: what is the service provider charging for the product?
  • Selecting an appropriate investment for your specific savings goal: This will inform how much potential losses you can stomach over time.
  • What is the underlying investment cost be it a UT or ETF like Satrix: If not specified, who is paying for it and where is it charged?

If the right investment choices are made within a TFSA, significant long term benefits should accrue.