Greed, Competition, Investor Expectations: Some Things Social Media Will Never Change

Courtesy Bryan Maleszyk on Flickr

Courtesy Bryan Maleszyk on Flickr

In my previous post, I wrote about the Paul Kedrosky session at Defrag 2008, Around the Horn. It was a free form session in which he queried several panelists on a range of subjects. Lots of good discussions from that.

One topic that got some extended discussion both on the panel and in audience questions was this:

Could social media and better information awareness tools have prevented the financial meltdown?

The basis of the question, in the Defrag context, was that there were signs and data that pointed to the implosion. The argument on the table was that there was a failure of information systems, and of social media, to alert the world to what was happening. And the follow-up: how can we improve this?

You can’t. Don’t even bother.

Because the problem isn’t one of not seeing the warning signs. See Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker’s slides about the various financial ratios at the time of the financial collapse. We were clearly running things in the red zone when you see that data. And the data was there to see.

The problem is that people will never change. They will ignore any system telling them that things might be getting out of hand. Why? Tragedy of the commons.

Financial Meltdown = Tragedy of the Commons

In economics and game theory, there is the notion of the commons dilemma. This is the idea that when there is a common good, people will act upon their own interests in consuming that common good:

  • Person 1: consumes proportional share of large resource
  • Person 2: takes an outsized portion of resource, which by itself doesn’t destroy the resource
  • Person 3: sees Person 2 take larger share, matches that or even increases amount consumed
  • And on and on…

The problem is that as people do this, they are not acting as stewards of the common good. The result is that the common good ends up entirely consumed as each person acted in their own self-interest.

With regard to the financial crisis, what was the common good that was over consumed? Home ownership. The grpahic below is from Mary Meeker’s presentation:

morgan-stanley-home-ownership-timeline

Consider the dotted line on the above graph to be the normal consumption rate for home ownership. From 2000 onward, an increasing number of people purchased their own homes. Turns out, this put a mighty strain on the financial system. A lot of people purchased homes who shouldn’t have.

Now I don’t blame people for wanting homes. But the effect was to drive the prices up incredibly, which caused more desire for home ownership. Home ownership is sustained by a number of factors: steady incomes, mortgage tax breaks, personal financial management, a robust collateralized mortgage market, mortgage insurance, etc. All of those are part of the common resources. They were undermined by too many people partaking in home ownership.

The Banker’s Life

So in the case of home ownership, mortgage bankers ended up destroying the various shared resources that make up the market for home ownership. Each banker acted independently to get as much as he could from the system: loosened lending rules overall, finance build-n-flip construction, push home ownership into markets with lower financial means (a.k.a. sub-prime).

I understand the mentality. Once upon a time, I was an investment banker with Bank of America, in the syndicated loan group. Syndicated loans are like bonds, with the risk spread across many lenders. Here are two examples of how things work in banking.

First, I was part of a deal team trying to win a mandate with HMO company Humana. We were trying to unseat Humana’s incumbent bank, Chase Manhattan. We went in aggressively, with some pretty cut-rate financing terms. Chase did want to lose the deal, and so they went even more aggressively. In the syndicated loan market, you need a bunch of lenders to participate. Which means you need realistic pricing to sell the deal, just like in the bond or stock markets. Turns out, in its effort to keep Humana, Chase went too low in its pricing. They couldn’t syndicate the deal. Chase got caught up in the competition to keep Humana.

Second, at a dinner with the head of our group, the subject of minding the bank’s credit position came up. As in, what was the role of the syndicated loans group in being stewards of the bank’s balance sheet? Should we use our superior market knowledge to alert the credit underwriters about risks we’re seeing, and deals from which we should walk? I was a brash young guy, and provocatively opined that we were all about winning and syndicating deals. We shouldn’t focus on the credit risks, as that was the job elsewhere in the bank. To which the head of the group replied to me, “For the sake of your career, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” He was right – we really did have a responsibility. But I was reflecting the behaviors I’d seen out there in the market.

I bring up these examples to give you a sense of what it can be like inside banking. There is money splashing around everywhere, and when everything is up-up-up, you really can’t turn off the motivations of people.

Social Media Will Never Change This

What was happening in the mortgage industry was that the motivations were all one way: make the deal! You see your colleague cranking on getting deals done, and getting recognition internally. Your compensation is based on how many mortgages you get done. Competitor banks were reporting higher revenues and earnings. If you don’t match the growth of your peers, Wall Street dings your stock. The real estate market just kept going up, up, up.

Social software wasn’t going to change these dynamics. The current financial crisis is just the latest in a string of such events. And there will be more. It’s just human nature.

Professor Andrew McAfee tweeted a musing about Enterprise 2.0 and the financial collapse. I responded with my own thoughts:

amcafee: Could E2.0 have saved Lehman and Merrill? No. 🙂

bhc3: @amcafee – I used to work in banking. E2.0 would have made the banks better at achieving their growth goals. But those goals hurt the banks.

Social software is a powerful tool for organizations to get better in terms of innovation, productivity and responsiveness. But companies are still run by humans, and we’ll never be rid of that, for both the good and the bad.

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How Would Social Media Help You in Your Job?

I’m having a ball with social media out in the consumer web. Blogging, FriendFeed, Twitter, Facebook. I’m learning so much about technology, new companies and people’s attitudes regarding Web 2.0. Along the way, some collaboration and a new job actually happened out of all this fun.

Now why can’t we see some of these same effects in the place where most of us spend a third of our day? We’re seeing live implementations of social media inside organizations (aka Enterprise 2.0). It’s a good sign.

I’m now in a job where I’m thinking about this a lot. And I figured I’d start with myself. Where would social media have made a difference in my two previous Big Corporate jobs:

Both companies were examples of today’s modern company, with a heavy information orientation. It’s been years since I worked at either, but here is how social media could have helped me in my jobs.

May Department Stores

The buying office of a retailer is responsible for picking the merchandise you see on the floor. Buyers also plan and execute promotions, set prices and ensure optimum amount of inventory on the floor and in the warehouse. We also had to communicate with the department managers of dozens of stores.

Here are the social media that would have helped me (if we had the Web back in 1990-1994):

  • Twitter: Yup, I would have loved Twitter. An easy way to fire off updates out to the field of department managers. And they would have sent back news of things they were seeing. Would have been a huge help during the crazy Christmas season.
  • Blog: I would have blogged about the weekly promotions. There’s a fair amount of work that went into them (promo prices, signage, focus of the ads), and documenting all that would have been useful. New products that we bought would have been good to discuss as well.
  • Bookmarking and notetaking: Assuming we had the world wide web back then, I would have bookmarked and noted a number of things for the job: competitor ads and pricing, product promotions I liked, new products I’d seen elsewhere.

Bank of America

At BofA, my group raised debt for corporations. Deals could run anywhere from $25 million to $6 billion. It was an information-intensive job.

The work consisted of three primary activities: (1) win the deal; (2) sell the deal; (3) close the deal via documentation. You had to stay on top of comparable deals, industry trends, capital market trends and general market chatter. Our group was divided into Structurers (me), who worked with clients to win and structure deals; and Distribution, who sold the deal to the market. Distribution always had the best information.

Social media I would have wanted:

  • Twitter: Again! I really would have wanted to see the ongoing chatter of the Distribution guys. They picked up all sorts of incredibly valuable market intelligence during the day. They used to IM. Now I’d want them to tweet.
  • Wiki: Every deal should have had a wiki space, with its “win the mandate” phase, its “sell it to the market” phase and the documentation phase. Wikis would have been good for handling the whole deal cycle.
  • Feed Reader: There were market data publications to which BofA subscribed. Getting a feed of deal information would have been a huge help. We were chasing information down in paper publications.
  • Bookmarking and notetaking: When deal, market or industry news came through, I needed a place to save it. I was always going back to find stuff I’d seen earlier. Bookmarking would have helped a lot. Note taking too – capture some information or thoughts, tag it and come back to it later.
  • Blog: My group wouldn’t have had much use for a blog amongst ourselves. But a blog that updated the rest of the bank as to what was happening in our particular capital market (syndicated loans) would have been perfect. We had other groups asking us often about market conditions.

I’d Love to Hear About You

Maybe you’re already using social media inside your company. Or perhaps you’ve been thinking, “my company really needs…”

If you’ve got any ideas to share, I’d love to hear them.

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If you want an easy way to stay on top of Enterprise 2.0, I invite you to join the Enterprise 2.0 Room on FriendFeed. The room takes feeds for Enterprise 2.0-related items on Twitter, Del.icio.us and SlideShare. To see this room, click here: http://friendfeed.com/rooms/enterprise-2-0

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