Feeling a bit of Deja Vu or Oops I did it Again

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As I watched the amazing finish to last nights Super Bowl, I had a flashback to a night just over nine years ago.

I spent most of the time leading up to the game conflicted. As a Jet fan living in Boston, I want to hate the Patriots but find myself loving the fact that although you may hate them, its likely because they are simply smarter than the other 29 NFL teams.

Lets face it the Pats just won their 4th Super Bowl in 14 years. During that time that have had one, count ‘em one Hall of Fame player. If you think of the rosters of teams like the 70’s Steelers, 80’s 49ers, or 90’s Cowboys, they were loaded with great players. The Pats? Just Tom Brady and some guy named Bellichek.

My other conflict is that I really like the Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Even though he dissed the Jets big time back in the mid-90’s, who could blame him for leaving that house of hell. He then went to coach my favorite college team, USC where he was minutes from winning three consecutive national championships. This is where the Deja Vu comes in.

The match up at the 2006 Rose Bowl was Number 1 USC  what Matt Leinhart and Reggie Bush vs. Number 2 Texas with Vince Young. Additionally, USC and Texas entered the game with winning streaks of 34 and 19 games respectively. I was taken by a certain bank along with a bunch of other finance geeks to Pasadena for the game. A beautiful day and a game that lived up to the immense hype.

The game was an offensive battle with a close game morphing to a USC lead of 38-26 with 6:42 to go in the game. Vince Young then led the Texas Longhorns on a touchdown drive to cut the USC lead to 5. On the ensuing drive USC drove to midfield where they faced a fourth down and two situation with just over two minutes left. Carroll could have chosen to punt, he could have chosen to hand the ball off to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, or he could have had last years Heisman Trophy winner throw a pass.

So what did Carroll choose to to with immortality on the line? Leinhart hands off to the immortal Lendale White, remember him? Unless you are a member of his immediate family, likely not. White rushes for one yard and Texas gets the possession with plenty of time to drive down the field.

Vince White of course runs in for the winning touchdown with 0:19 remaining. Final score Texas 41- USC 38. Drive home safely.

I was crushed. Of course, the entire state of Tennessee should have been more upset as Carroll’s mistake only made the intellectually challenged Young look better and the Titans drafted him. That was a mistake.

So in 2006, Pete Carroll looked at the biggest situation in the biggest game of his career, looked at his stud running back and said, “Nah, let me roll the dice”.

One could argue that Pete Carroll is two incredibly poor decisions away from arguably being the greatest coach in football history.

Last night, I sat on the couch and said to my wife, I feel like Ive been here before. It was just 40 degrees warmer.

 

 

Shhh. The American Dream’s Dead

Many people view last night’s State of the Union Address to be the kick off of the 2016 Presidential Campaign. If that is true than it will be very interesting to see if a major political party can win the Presidency by admitting that the American Dream is dead or at least needs an assist from government.

President Obama laid out a series of policies that are directly aimed at the middle class in an attempt to help them to have a chance to achieve the Dream. These policies, including increased child credits, paid medical leave, free community college, and a middle class tax break will be paid for by tax increases on the 0.1%. Not exactly allowing the invisible hand to work its magic!

The SOTU is the latest salvo in a series that includes numerous proposals from Elizabeth Warren and even some from the recently converted to the cause of combatting inequality, Larry Summers. Many of these proposals are in response to the perceived continuing increase in inequality and the fact that Progressives believe that without significant government intervention the Dream will die.

All of this has the effect of forcing the all but anointed 2016 Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton to embrace significant parts of this progressive agenda. While this seems to be something of an anathema to the centrist Hillary, it is becoming apparent that this is what many in the party want. But can they convince the nation that the American Dream needs to be provided with the assistance of government?

The American Dream has been part of our nations folklore for almost a century. While the story of Ragged Dick is almost 150 years old, the mention of the American Dream dates to 1931 and is attributed to James Truslow Adams., Adams envisioned not “a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” but rather “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Amazingly, on overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in the American Dream. Perhaps this is the reason why Americans tolerate such a high degree of inequality and have traditionally disliked government intervention in the engine of capitalism. Americans believe that very soon they or their descendants are going to be rich. As recently as 2009, the Pew Charitable Trust found that 39 percent of Americans thought that it was common for someone to be born poor and become rich. In fact 31 percent of Americans believed that they were going to become rich in their lifetimes.

Now the truth is that the American Dream, at least from a socio economic perspective has always been something of a myth. According to Timothy Noah in the Great Divergence, the United States (along with the United Kingdom) are the two developed nations in which income heritability is highest and intergenerational mobility is lowest. In simple terms it means that birth is the greatest determinant of an individuals career and income. Across all of the “Old World, less competitive” nations in Europe, mobility is higher and in places such as the “socialist” Nordic countries socio-economic mobility is orders of magnitude greater. Does anyone other than me see a link between this and income distribution?

So how will this work. While Republicans like to state that President Obama used government largess to win votes, there is little evidence that he actually did so. In fact, the last president to campaign on reducing inequality and actually win the office was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Lets think about 1964. The American economy was strong, the American people strongly believed that government was a force for good, the top marginal rate on personal income had just been reduced from 91% to 70% (that is not a Typo!), and the incumbent LBJ presided over the most overwhelmingly Democratic congress of modern times.

I think that the road to convincing Americans that government intervention, not just to grow the economy but also to grow economic opportunity for the largest number of Americans will be difficult. This will likely entail convincing those in the middle income and middle of the road politically that inequality is not only unfair, but bad economically for everyone. It will take a candidate whose credentials are not “Harvard Liberal” but one who is viewed as centrist. It also will take a candidate with incredibly thick skin that will be able to withstand the assault of the vested interests.

It will also take a bit of luck I suspect. The best hope for electing a Progressive minded president, Hillary isn’t a Progressive but can be pushed that way by her party, is to have the Republicans to nominate a candidate who stands in clear contrast to these ideals. Ted Cruz would be a dream but even his party knows he’s unelectable. Lets just hope that Jeb doesn’t survive the primaries.

The challenge to make the pro-government case is a daunting one. If were a betting man I’d be betting “Don’t Pass”. Fortunately, as I go to sleep tonight, I am heartened that some of us are discussing the rapidly fading American Dream. Of course Jodi Ernst is discussing Hardees…………….

Time Flies… But Should I?

So once again I find myself at an airport bar awaiting another long (but not long enough to sleep) overnight flight. Was a time not long ago that I was a regular on this circuit be it NY-London, London-Mid East, or Anywhere- Asia.

I had a job with lots of travel and lord knows, I like being efficient. Why waste a day traveling when you can try to time your food, alcohol, and general fatigue all in the name of maxing out your four hours sleep?

While there were many negatives to lots of travel, I would be dishonest if I said that there weren’t elements that I actually enjoyed. I got to see the world, I got to travel “upfront” and stay in great hotels, and traveling for business is completely mindless. You are focused on your task and all you need to to is look for the sign that says “Mr. Kushner”, to get safely to the next meeting, or flight, or hotel.

I also loved traveling for pleasure. With my family it is always a fun shared experience. We get to bond with no distractions. We have seen so much together. I know that these holidays are the things that my children will remember for all of their lives.

I am also fortunate to have a spouse who is ok with me taking my occasional boondoggle on my own. Almost exactly one year ago, I sat in the same airport bar blogging. My destination was the same that night as it is tonight. Just read my post about the end of the Economic Crisis, and you will know how that turned out!

Tonight, I’m off again to see friends and my favorite band play their farewell tour in their hometown. I am excited, but on the other hand………..

I am much more reticent than I’ve been about a trip in, well I can’t remember when I’ve been this reticent.

I don’t know if its just that I’m getting older and god forbid becoming a bit of a homebody? I’m gone for an hour and I miss my girls.

Maybe I’m worried that I’ve lost my connectivity to my former home and stomping ground. Its been almost three years and even the best connections atrophy when not watered regularly. I mean how many times can we talk about what we did in 2008?

Or maybe, I have just moved on and am involved enough in the present that the past is just something that I remember fondly and revisit a but less frequently.

Maybe I should answer that on Thursday………..

There is Good News and there are Challenges

 

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It appears that the ESG market is gaining increasing traction. So why is it so hard to create an investing model for investors to invest in early stage social enterprises?

Last week there was extremely good news around the growth of the Sustainable Investing universe. According to The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (“USSIF”), the size of this market grew by an astonishing 76% over the past two years. It now stands at over $6trillion. This represents one in every six investable dollars in the US. The reasons for the increase are twofold. First, investment managers are responding to investor demand. Second, ESG assets in many cases offer superior returns AND risk diversification. This makes investing in ESG assets an obvious choice for many.

The biggest area of growth is in what USSIF calls ESG Integration. This simply means that asset managers are now looking at Environmental, Social, and Governance factors both as negative and positive screens. The latter is a change from the past. If you look a little deeper into where investment dollars are going or not going, climate change and gun safety are the two most impacted areas.

While this is certainly good news, most of this investing is focused on publicly traded companies and as such, it still belies a relatively slow trajectory for growth in early stage investment capital for what I would call non-environmental issues. These “Impact Investments” are in areas including education, workforce development, and food security to name a few. It is estimated that the amount of money available for impact investment is only between $40-60billion. Keep in mind that Bain Capital alone manages over $85billion and that charitable giving in America totals over $250billion per year.

The question is why Impact Investing been slow to develop? What are the barriers to a more robust impact investing market? While there are many ranging to investor education, building infrastructure, and types of social ventures that can support impact investing, there are other issues that while less transparent, have a major influence on the pace of growth of the Impact Investing market.

In my conversations with potential investors and investees, there are at least five impediments to raising early stage capital for impact investments.

The first is that in order for many of these investments to work some kind of catalytic capital is required. In the for profit space this capital would typically come from entrepreneurs, friends and family, or angel investors. In the social space this capital can come in a number of forms. It could be donations to a 501 © 3 entity. Or for community housing, it could come in the form of the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to meet needs in low and moderate- income communities. Loan guarantees from government agencies can also act as catalytic capital. Regardless of the form, catalytic capital is risk reducing, making it easier for other investors to get involved.

The issue is that there is far too little of this type of capital, especially donations to be used for non-program purposes. Foundations typically give money for program and not for capacity building leaving this role to high net worth individuals and corporates. Additionally, mixing of donations and investments can be confusing especially to the investee.

The second barrier is size of transactions. This applies to both investors and investees. Outside of the environmental space, deal sizes are small. Many social ventures are service businesses, which require relatively small amounts of capital. These small transactions are not typically interesting to larger funds that might decide to allocate a portion of their fund to impact investments if they could source an investment large enough to pay for the diligence required. Therefore these investments typically go to dedicated impact investing funds which to date have struggled to raise significant amounts of capital.

Exacerbating this challenge is the third barrier to growth. The impact investment market reminds me of structured credit in the mid 1990’s before CLO’s, CDO’s, and ABS deals became commonplace. Every transaction not only has its own specific entity risk but also has its own idiosyncratic documentation. This increases the risk as well as the resources needed to make an investment decision. Increased liquidity and the larger capital flows that come with it are at least partially dependent on standardization of instruments. Highly bespoke instruments will work for a given transaction but may act as a hinderance to broad market growth.

Take the example of Social Impact Bonds (“SIB’s”). This highly touted instrument for social investment is simply not scalable or replicable in its present form. It is simply too complicated for most investors to understand and each bond will be materially different. This increases fees to bankers and lawyers helping to make SIB’s the world’s most expensive bridge loan. That is not to say that the technology behind SIB’s is not useful. Its just that in order for SIB’s to be widely adapted, investors and investees will need to reach a compromise that allows for standardization of documentation. This will include, tenor, events of default and compliance, and most importantly metrics. Simply put, the perfect is the enemy of the good. This must change so investors can focus on the specific entity risk of an investment.

This leads us to the fourth barrier. Many leaders of social enterprises are not accustomed to or comfortable with the concept of taking investments. They have traditionally sought donations or grants to fund their mission. Many of these leaders are reticent to engage with “investors” out of concern of losing focus on the mission. To be fair, many social missions cannot support investing, as they do not have cash flows that can generate a return. On the other hand, many social enterprises would be enhanced by taking money from impact investors to grow to scale.

Perhaps the biggest issue with social enterprises is the need to present their businesses in a fashion that more traditional investors are accustomed to. What I mean by this is having an early focus on capacity building that allows for strong accounting and finance, business planning, marketing/development, and understandable metrics. I believe that this is where impact investors may be most useful. Many potential investors not only seek to invest their financial capital but their intellectual capital as well. Creating networks of investors/mentors is an important step in the growth of early stage impact investing.

Ahhh, those investors. Over the past couple of years I have had many conversations with individuals who might be impact investors. These individuals in all cases participate in both philanthropy and investing. They should like the idea of investing for social as well as financial gain. But for the most part they are skeptical at best. To quote a hedge fund manager that I spoke with, “When I want to do good, I’ll make a donation and when I want to invest, I’ll invest in a company that I understand”. I have heard similar comments from many other high net worth individuals whom are likely to be a significant portion of the impact investing space.

As I heard this answer again and again, I began to think about why people feel this way. My conclusion is that wealthy individuals, particularly those who made their money rather than inheriting it placed philanthropy and investing in very different realms. Philanthropy is about doing good but in many cases there is less rigor around donating than around investing. To be certain, this is in part due to the lack of or fuzziness of metrics in the social sector.

Investing on the other hand has one clear goal and one clear measuring stick It also has a not insignificant ego element attached to it. For many investors being successful in investing is not just about making money, it’s about being right! So while its fine to make a donation that doesn’t go well, it’s more than a financial problem if an investment, impact or otherwise isn’t successful.

It is this fact that keeps many potential investors on the sideline. They correctly see that measuring success in impact investing is more layered and complex. At present the measure of success is unclear.

The solution is a combination of marketing and metrics. We must do a better job of making clear what Impact Investing is, where it matters, and for what kind of social issues it works for. We also need to make the case that impact investments are part of a portfolio and investing in addition to donating can stretch the impact of money further. We must teach social entrepreneurs how to tell their story in a way that is compelling, consistent, and clear. Just like for profit entrepreneurs do it.

A couple of months back I was a panelist at the Alliance for Business Leadership’s session on Sustainable Investing. A member of the audience took me to task for claiming that all impact investing was concessionary in some way. He stated that we need to stop giving up the high ground. He is 100% right! The point I wanted to make is that if the FINANCIAL returns were the same as a traditional investment then is it really an impact investment?

The reality is that many impact investments produce greater returns than their non-impact comparable once you factor in ALL of the returns; financial, environmental, and social. Now all we need to do is create metrics that are clear, simple to understand, and comparable. If we want to attract investing capital to the social arena then we must find a way to simplify and standardize our method of communicating across the sector. The Global Impact Investing Network (“GIIN”) has gone a long way to creating metrics and disseminating the information. But still there are just too many metrics with too much information for the average investor to fathom.

I understand that highly specialized and specific information is valuable, and it must be available. I also am aware of the concern that may mission driven organizations have with being categorized and being encouraged or even pushed to engage in mission drift. I have two answers to that concern. First, as stated above, the more detailed information must be available both for investors and for the organization so that it can constantly measure its effectiveness. Secondly, it is the hope of many investors that comparative metrics will better allow everyone to put capital with the organizations that are having impact. Investors need ways of easily identifying successful social enterprises, ones that will have impact. After all, isn’t this the point of impact investing?

I welcome any and all responses, questions, and thoughts on this topic. We must find a better way.

 

 

Everything but the Pizza

 

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Those of you who spend time with me and are aware of my obsession with London may be interested to read this entry. You might call this is just a slightly belated love letter to Boston‘s recently departed and beloved Mayor, Tom Menino.

I have spent the past couple of years trying to find my place in my adopted home of Boston. Now, I’m not going to bitch about the weather, which is obvious (the weather just plain sucks here) or the restaurants, which are amazingly mediocre for such an affluent, educated, and diverse city.

It’s just that I missed the incredible intellectual, ethnic, cultural, and gastronomic diversity of my former home. It was in London that I realized that New York may be the financial capital of the world, but it is far from the world’s greatest city.

Today I am here to say that with each passing day Boston becomes more and more of a fantastic place to live, a world city. The diversity here across many parameters continues to surprise me in a positive way. I am beginning to feel like I did in London. Not a day passes in which I don’t have multiple interesting conversations on a world of topics with well-informed, thoughtful people. Most of these conversations involve people with ideas of how to make the world a better place. This desire is found in both the private and public sector and is something I usually found missing in New York where it is always about the money.

Every day with I meet people from different disciplines, different countries, different races and religions. Most are drawn here by the fact that unlike many other places in America, Boston welcomes different types of people and ideas. We have yet to fall into the myopic, nativist dialog that has gripped much of America.

This diversity and the fact that it’s welcome here has been highlighted to me twice in the past month or so. On the first occasion, I was looking at an apartment that was for sale in Brighton, a part of Boston. When I arrived the place was packed with twenty prospective buyers more than half of who were of Asian origin. Why were they there? Well it was to purchase a residence for their children who may attend one of Boston’s diverse colleges, or to move here for a career, or as an investment in a city with strong and stable real estate values, or perhaps, like London, Boston is one of the few global landing zones for people who’s homes are in places that may not always be so safe. This is increasingly the case for people from many places.

The why doesn’t really matter. All of these people add to our intellectual capital, they add to our diversity, and they make Boston a more interesting place to live. Oh yeah, they sure help real estate valuations. That apartment I was looking at sold for 15% above the asking price that day!

The second example of this diversity came this week. I had the pleasure of attending Tech Stars, which is an annual event in which 12 of the best new innovators get to pitch their ideas to an audience of investors, media, and other innovators. Boston is riddled with these events, from Tech Stars, to Mass Challenge (which now has international spinoffs), to Social Innovation Forum, run by Root Cause for innovations for with social benefit.

We got to hear twelve pitches, eight of which came from innovators born outside of the United States. The innovators came from five of the seven continents. It was great to see that all of these innovators came to Boston to pursue their dreams. Their ideas, hard work, and just their presence enrich Boston in many ways.

But why Boston? Well we have the greatest concentration of top universities in the world. We have access to capital both here and through New York a mere 200 miles away. We have a government led by people like Tom Menino, Deval Patrick, and our Senators Ed Market and Elizabeth Warren, who all understand that the nurturing of intellectual capital IS Boston’s and Massachusetts’s advantage and we don’t care where it comes from as long as it comes here and stays here. 10% of area college students are local products. 30% of all Boston area college graduates make their home in the area!

Perhaps most importantly Boston has a very large number of seasoned individuals from a diverse group of disciplines. An amazing number of them not only are willing to fund, consult, and mentor to people with ideas, we actively seek to do so. This passion for paying it forward is not only altruistic,  it keeps us fresh and involved, and it sets Boston apart as an area where we don’t care who you are or where you come from, what we care about is what you bring to our community.

So after two years, I get it. Boston is a small but very special place. Now if I could just get a decent slice of pizza…….

Using Campaign Dollars to Support Democracy

Given the results of this weeks mid-term elections I am re-blogging a post from earlier this year

The battle to restrict big-ticket campaign contributions seems to have been lost. Perhaps there is a way to put some of this money towards supporting our democracy

I am waiting for the phone to ring. I’m a supporter of the Democrats and as of Friday my money is needed. The inevitable entry of Scott Brown to the New Hampshire Senatorial race will significantly up the cost of the election. In fact, the number whispered to me was $30 million. In 2008, the winner, Senator Shaheen polled just over 350,000 votes. Assuming that most of the electorate has already decided, that $30 million will be spent swaying 30,000 voters.

We should have the donors just write checks to the undecided and eliminate the need for a campaign.

Our American concept of representative democracy is under threat.

There are two primary threats to our democracy. First is the way we finance campaigns. America is the only major democracy that allows substantial contributions directly to candidates and indirectly to Political Action Committees. We are living in a pay-to-play system dominated by the super-rich, large corporations, and labor unions. Private equity pioneer Tom Perkins recently stated in an interview seen on CNN Money, “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?”

The second threat is declining voter participation. Participation levels are as low as 55 percent in Presidential elections, with much lower turnout in off-year elections. For example, in 2013’s special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, for example, just 25 percent of eligible voters voted.

This combined with the way we finance campaigns leaves a small group defining and selecting who governs us. This is a significant challenge to the preservation of our democracy, and indeed to the greatness of our nation.

I propose that we use one threat to solve the other. Instead of restricting campaign contributions, which would take a constitutional convention, let’s tax them and use the revenue to create a dedicated fund to educate voters and drive up voter participation rates. This tax should be in the 30-50 percent range on all money spent by anyone on political speech, including self-funded candidates. There would be no exceptions. This would help ensure a level playing field.

Before screaming about more taxes or the fact that this will violate the right to free speech, just think about the possible impact.

First, a tax may give pause to some donors. Too much money invades our political process from a small group of people. If a tax slows the flow, then all the better.

Second, tax revenue spent on voter participation would have the most effect on voters having different views than those of the high-dollar donors. According to the US Census Bureau, voter turnout for individuals earning over $150,000 is almost 75 percent. For those with incomes under $30,000 it’s 45 percent. Using political donation taxes to fund voter participation and education programs will help restore balance to our political process without restricting political speech.

The money raised by taxing political contributions, which would amount to billions of dollars during a Presidential election year, could be used in at least three ways:

First, I would fund the teaching of civics in all public schools. Amazingly this isn’t part of the regular curriculum in most schools. People need to know how our system works for them to want to be involved. The good news is that there are groups that provide civics education. These organizations are small and dependent on private largess. Tax revenue would facilitate a broader rollout.

When I was in school perhaps most important was learning about our process of government: the three branches of government; the division between state and federal responsibilities; and the essential fact that Americans lived in a representative democracy. This was and remains central to our belief that we are the greatest nation in the history of mankind,

Next, we could use the funds for non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Instead of having campaigns roust their perspective voters, there should be a bipartisan effort to get everyone to vote. Thanks to studies by behavioral scientists, we have much more effective and less expensive ways to get people to vote. This includes helping people plan their voting (where will you vote, when will you vote) through commitment devices and making individuals voting habits public, which levers individuals’ sense of social responsibility.

Finally, the dedicated tax revenue should be used to provide tax credits to those who vote. Give every voting age American a tax credit. This idea also comes from the field of behavioral science. Give voters enough tax incentive to take action, but not enough to be too costly, say $50. If people vote, they keep the credit. If they don’t, they lose the credit. We know that people dislike losing money more than they enjoy gaining the same amount of money. This should provide a strong incentive to the potential electorate.

Our democracy is suffering. My proposal is not a panacea to what ails America. However, if we can increase voter participation by even just 10 percent, funded from some of the more egregious campaign finance abuses, it would serve to offset some of the imbalances that have grown significantly in the past 30 years.

I am certain of one thing: if corporations and labor unions don’t like this proposal, then I am certain that I am on the right track.

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How Uber and the Sharing Economy Can Win Over Regulators

Harvard Business Review:

Interesting given the current discussions in Brookline and other cities.

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

Sharing economy firms are disrupting traditional industries across the globe. For proof, look no further than Airbnb which, at $10 billion, can boast a higher valuation than the Hyatt hotel chain. Uber is currently valued at $18.2 billion relative to Hertz at $12.5 billion and Avis at $5.2 billion. Beyond individual firms, there are now more than 1,000 cities across four continents where people can share cars. The global sharing economy market was valued at $26 billion in 2013 and some predict it will grow to become a $110 billion revenue market in the coming years, making it larger than the U.S. chain restaurant industry. The revenue flowing through the sharing economy directly into people’s wallets will surpass $3.5 billion this year, with growth exceeding 25%, according to Forbes. The business model – where peers can offer and purchase goods and services from each other through…

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