MISSION INTANGIBLE

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MISSION:INTANGIBLE, the blog of the Intangible Asset Finance Society, offers critical comments on intangible asset, corporate reputation, and finance; supplemented by quantitative reputation metrics. Intangible assets include business processes, patents, trademarks; reputations for ethics and integrity; quality, safety, sustainability, security, and resilience; and comprise 70% of the average company's value. MISSION:INTANGIBLE is a registered trademark of the Intangible Asset Finance Society.

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Ethical lubricant

Nir Kossovsky - Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Operating costs such as internal frictional costs are the bane of any executive accountable for the bottom line. True, they can be cut – usually through workforce reductions – but the long-term effects on surviving employees may include net losses in productivity and even greater internal frictional costs.

Here is good news, executives. There is a proven strategy for lowering internal frictional costs. This is it. Be ethical. Be sustainable. Be safe. And be known for it.

In other words, all you need to do is apply the best practices found in other companies that are superior stewards of their intangible assets – the business processes that lead to reputations for ethics, safety, quality, innovation, security, and sustainability. Companies that follow these practices tend to out perform their peers and better reward their shareholders.

The relationship between these business processes, reputation, internal frictional costs, and value creation are illustrated on a webpage of one of our members, Steel City Re, a leader in risk and reputation management. The latest data affirming these principles comes from Kelly Services, Inc. (NASDAQ: KELYA, KELYB), a world leader in workforce management services and human resources solutions.

According to the Kelly study announced late last month,

Major public issues such as a company’s reputation for strong ethical practices have become critical factors in choosing where to work, even to the point where many employees are prepared to sacrifice pay or promotion in order to work for organizations that are actively engaged in good social responsibility practices. More specifically, concerns about ethical behavior outweigh concerns about the environment by all generations, when making employment choices.

Here are some other key findings:

  • Almost 90 percent of respondents say they are more likely to work for an organization that is considered ethically and socially responsible, something that is consistent across all age generations.
  • 80 percent are more likely to work for an organization that is considered environmentally responsible, a figure that is considerably higher among older age groups.
  • In deciding where to work, an organization’s reputation for ethical conduct is considered ‘very important’ by 65 percent of Gen Y, 72 percent of Gen X, and 77 percent of baby boomers.
  • 46 percent of Gen Y would be prepared to forego pay or promotion to work for an organization with a good reputation, rising to 48 percent for Gen X and 53 percent for baby boomers.
  • In deciding where to work, policies to address global warming are considered ‘very important’ by 31 percent of Gen Y, rising to 35 percent among Gen X and 36 percent for baby boomers.
Here's the action part. Want to cut operating costs? Ramp up your company’s reputation for ethics, sustainability, safety, etc. Become a superior risk and reputation manager.

Want to know how to do it? Join the Intangible Asset Finance Society. We provide a forum for executives to discover better ways to increase the visibility, transparency, and value of intangible assets. These assets comprise 50% of the average company's value. Click here for information on membership and affiliate with us on LinkedIn.

Galleon's wake

Nir Kossovsky - Friday, October 30, 2009
Thirteen days have now passed since the Chairman of the Galleon Group, the hedge fund at the center of a suspected insider trading ring, and several executives, have been charged. The fund has liquidated about 90 percent of its nearly $3.7 billion portfolio of technology stocks and other securities and will be consigned to history, shortly. 

Three of the companies caught in this scandal are going concerns. Their executives are accused of divulging confidential non-public information. Those companies are McKinsey & Company, IBM (NYSE:IBM), and Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC). Of the three, McKinsey & Company has a widely held reputation for discretion – an intangible asset that is essential to their operational effectiveness.

We hypothesized that this reputation would help mitigate McKinsey’s headline risk. Evidence of this mitigation would be fewer articles in the business and legal press relative to the other two firms.

Society member Jim Singer of the Pepper Hamilton law firm, and author of the blog IP Spotlight, helped us with the analysis. Lexis Nexis searches were conducted combining 2 comprehensive databases - Business News Publications and Legal News Publications for the dates 10/1/2009-10/29/2009. The first search was for the pairing of “Galleon and Rajaratnam.” Jim then searched the resulting 112 articles for the additional terms of McKinsey, IBM, or Intel.



The data show that McKinsey’s name is less frequently associated than the other two firms with the disgraced hedge fund. This observation is statistically significant. It is consistent with our general contention that companies with strong reputations based on rigorous business processes make for sympathetic actors that are treated as victims rather than culpable agents when adverse events occur. In short, reputations arising from superior intangible asset stewardship help mitigate headline risk.

NB: Statistical analysis using the Chi Square test yields a p<.03 (statistically significant).

Hedge fund homily

Nir Kossovsky - Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Former Fed Chairman Greenspan noted last year that in a market system based upon the intangible asset of trust, reputation has significant value. Madoff aside, trust is having a hard time on Wall Street. We share two recent stories of reputation malignment (vilification?) in the Financial services sector.
 
The first, reported by the Financial Times last Thursday, is that one in five hedge fund managers misrepresents their fund or its performance to investors during formal due diligence investigations, according to research from New York University's Stern School of Business. Researchers found that the most common misrepresentations by hedge fund managers was the amount of money they had entrusted to their funds; Performance and regulatory and legal histories are also often misrepresented.
 
The second, which broke widely on Friday, involves allegations of trading on insider information at the hedge fund, Galleon Group. According to prosecutors, co-conspirators of fund founder Raj Rajaratnam include a McKinsey & Co. consultant, an IBM (NYSE:IBM) senior vice president, an Intel Corp. (NASDAQ:INTC) treasury manager and two executives from the New Castle hedge fund group of the defunct Bear Stearns.

The reputation angle obviously interests the Society. But there is more. What really interests us is how McKinsey, IBM, and Intel will manage the headline risk. Will their intangible asset risk management systems allow them to characterize the malfeasance as the product of rogue actors? Or will they be held culpable for the non-compliance of their employees?

Stay tuned.

New fundamentals

Nir Kossovsky - Monday, October 05, 2009
Nell Minow, editor and co-founder of the Corporate Library, a provider of corporate governance research, ratings and investment risk analysis, penned a Financial Times op ed piece on 2 October suggesting that going forward, fund managers and analysts will look at four new fundamental elements “that will become as important as cash flow and return on investment.” To no surprise around here, these four comprise intangible asset metrics and business processes. While we do not necessarily agree with Minow's views, her comments are worth noting. This is what she wrote, briefly:

1. Accounting: Investors will demand better information about human and intellectual capital, risk management processes, and sustainability. Our friend, Ken Jarboe of the Athena Alliance, has been delving into this topic for years. You can link to the Athena Alliance here.

2. Boards of Directors: Investors will demand greater competence and selfless engagement from members of the Boards of their companies. They will want from Directors what private equity firms demand of early stage company executives: "skin in the game." This notion compresses to the concept of Governance, about which the Society has organized a Committee chaired by Cathy Reese. Without leaving with us a pound of flesh, you can download her 6 Feb 09 "how to" presentation on this subject from our Events page.

3. Compensation: We read Minow’s comments in this light: executive compensation must better align the interests of senior management with the long-term interests of the firm and its stakeholders. Compensation processes, writes Minow, are a key indicator of risk. While we still see benefits in incentives and material compensation, notwithstanding the growing chant of mobs with pitchforks, we like the part in Minow's piece about processes and risk management. In fact, we like anything that links risk management to overall corporate reputation. This is especially when a company uses financial instruments to signal superior risk management. The Society presented a Mission:Intangible Monthly Briefing on Risk and Reputation Management 10 July 09 that you can download from our Events page.

4. Investors: Going forward, investors will look to see if the existing investors are providing sufficient oversight to ensure that the Board of Directors is providing sufficient oversight to ensure that management is providing sufficient oversight of the firm’s operations. Did you follow that? The business process is oversight; the intangible asset affected is trust. To us, the take home message is this. The greater the trust (a product of transparency), the less oversight burden for all. And how can investors signal trust? According to Minow, investors can signal trust by being "overweight relative to the index." In other words, extra skin in the game. See #2 and #3 above. 

The bottom line is this. Investors will seek companies that have their business processes under better control, can quantify and report the value of these proceses to their stakeholders, can manage their risks, and can signal their material conformance with the preceding  through non-traditional channels. The Society provides a working environment for best-practices discovery for executives seeking to accomplish the above. Won't you join us?

It's personal

Nir Kossovsky - Thursday, September 24, 2009
During the 6 February 2009 MISSION:INTANGIBLE Monthly Briefing, Fish & Richardson’s Cathy Reese, who chairs the Society’s IA Corporate Governance Committee, indicated that under Delaware Law, Directors and Officers had a Duty of Care to oversee the management of the business processes that help establish reputation. She noted that absent oversight systems, Members of the Board could be personally liable to shareholders for adverse events that impaired a company’s reputation.

Cathy’s warning of shareholder-driven exposure is just the beginning. Now companies are seeking restitution, too. According to the newspaper Deutsche Welle, after spending nearly 2.5 billion euros to cover legal bills and fines stemming from an international bribery scandal, Munich-based Siemens AG (NYSE:SI) is seeking payments from its former leadership team. Siemens was investigated for paying 1.3 billion euros in kickbacks between 2003 and 2006 to potential buyers in 12 countries, including Italy, Greece, Russia and Nigeria. In Germany and in the United States, the company was found guilty of corruption and ordered to pay combined fines of just over a billion euros. After the 2006 investigation, Siemens then accused some of its former managers of having failed to stop illegal practices and wide-ranging bribery.

It gets more interesting. The Financial Times reports that some of Siemens’ investors have threatened to sue the company if it did not claim damages from its former managers.

The value of risk and reputation management at the board level should be painfully obvious. The consequences of failing to manage a firm’s business processes for ethics, sustainability, innovation, quality, safety, security, etc. – the drivers of reputation – can place officers and directors at great personal peril. Yes, it’s personal.

Ethical pharmaceuticals II

Nir Kossovsky - Friday, September 04, 2009

Several months ago, we took a look at ethical pharmaceutical companies on the occasion of a publication by Ethisphere magazine that ranked the "most ethical companies." We now revisit those companies on the occasion of the formal announcement that Pfizer and a subsidiary have agreed to pay $2.3 billion to resolve criminal and civil claims stemming from the illegal promotion of certain pharmaceutical products (read, unethical behavior).

The Society is interested in the economic value of business processes that support intangible assets such as ethics, innovation, sustainability, etc that stakeholders percieve as reputation. Companies reputed to be more ethical, the Society suggests, will reward shareholders with above average returns.

In our 1 May MISSION:INTANGIBLE posting, we noted that the reputation ranking of Novartis (NYSE:NVS), as measured by the Steel City Re Corporate Reputation Index, was superior to Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY), whose index ranking, in turn, was superior to Pfizer (NYSE:PFE). We noted, however, that Pfizer’s ranking appeared relatively stable while Lilly’s ranking was drifting down rather quickly.

In our experience, firms with superior reputation rankings as measured by the Steel City Re Reputation Index outperform their peers. Those with declining reputation indices tend to underperform their peers. We therefore expected that going forward, Novartis would outperform Pfizer, and that Pfizer would outperform Lilly. The stability of the reputation index data for Pfizer suggested that stakeholders had already factored the alleged ethical breaches into their respective assessments.

Yesterday’s announcement provided an excellent test of our expectations for economic behavior going forward from 17 April (4/17).

The data, summarized above from a Big Charts graph (pasted below), confirm the forecast we made based on the Reputation Index. From the period beginning 17 April (when we ran the index data for the 1 May blog note on these companies) through yesterday, Novartis rewarded its shareholders with a 29% return on equity. Pfizer rewarded its shareholders with an 18% ROE, and Lilly disappointed its shareholders with a ~0.5% gain.


Ethical investigations

Nir Kossovsky - Tuesday, August 11, 2009
As a follow on to last week's note on the fall of Huron Consulting due to ethical issues, the Financial Times reported Monday  that a study commissioned by KPMG of UK companies found that four out of 10 respondents had begun investigations in the past three years. This compares with 27 per cent a 2007 survey.

Companies had a further incentive to set up better anti-corruption practices after big fines were imposed on Siemens of Germany and KBR-Halliburton of the US for overseas bribery.

Despite the rise in anti-fraud activity by British business, however, the survey showed that an even greater number – 43 per cent – had no anti-corruption measures in place, suggesting that many companies still did not take the issue seriously.

And while 67 per cent of respondents said there were places where it was impossible to do business without bribery, only 35 per cent had ever declined to work in a country because of fears of corruption.

Even among companies that had adopted anti-bribery measures, the survey found that only 42 per cent conducted regular audits of overseas agents – the middlemen who have been found at the centre of corruption allegations.

There was also a lack of awareness about the far-reaching “extra-territorial” powers of US authorities through the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act, which had been used to pursue British companies and executives.

Six out of 10 companies said they worked in the US, but only three in 10 realised they were subject to the law.

In the UK, a new bribery bill which could become law next year creates an offence of “negligent failure of a commercial organisation to prevent bribery”. Executives could be held responsible for wrongdoing in their company or by third-party agents, regardless of whether they knew about it. In the US, that standard is already in place as the result of In re Caremark Int’l Inc. Derivative Litig., 698 A.2d 959 (Del. Ch. 1996), and Stone v. Ritter, 2006 Del. LEXIS 597 (Del. 2006).

NGO no no

Nir Kossovsky - Thursday, July 16, 2009
We dedicate most of the time and effort of this communication channel to a discussion of the intangible assets that underpin reputation. Usually, the subject matter involves corporate behavior.  Awareness of issues associated with corporate behavior may come to light because of government regulatory action. More often, it is the result of NGO-driven publicity. In a break with tradition, the subject of today's note comprises NGO transparency. 

An on-line Wall Street Journal op-ed posted earlier this week alleged that Human Rights Watch, a 30-year old NGO dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, sent its leading Middle East official, Sarah Leah Whitson, to extract money from potential Saudi donors by bragging about the group's "battles" with the "pro-Israel pressure groups." The ongoing dialogue appears to affirm the allegations.

NGOs are important actors in both the geopolitical and commercial worlds. They encourage and monitor corporate compliance with many of the best practices comprising key business processes that underpin reputations for ethics, safety, and sustainability. They are respected and feared by much of the business community. Their primary tool is the threat of headline risk. Their moral authority depends on their reputation for independence. Their value is ephemeral. Loss of reputation and moral authority can be catastrophic.

Ronelle Burger and Trudy Owens from the University of Nottingham recently published a study that was motivated by “widespread calls for NGOs to become more accountable and transparent.” They conclude that “… NGOs with antagonistic relations with the government may be more likely to hide information and be dishonest.“

Human Rights watch has an antagonistic relationship with the Israeli government. The Israeli government wasted no time questioning HRW's "moral compass. "

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


Sustainable sustainability?

Nir Kossovsky - Monday, July 13, 2009
Amongst our master list of key drivers of reputation recognized by the Society are ethics, innovation, quality, safety, sustainability and security. We gave the top post to ethics and its derivatives, confidence and credibility. We haven’t shared our thoughts on the pecking order for the five remaining intangible asset business processes, although recent events suggest that the market is moving sustainability into a lower ranking.

What is happening? A few weeks ago we noted that United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) had quietly terminated its sustainability-led advertising strategy. Now we read that BP (NYSE:BP) is moving from renewables back to petroleum.

We intend no offense. However, in light of the above, there is a open question: while sustainability is certainly a public good, can it be practiced by individual companies profitably? Or more specifically to the intangible asset aspects, "is a reputation for sustainability valued?" We invite your comments here and on the IAFS Linked-In platform.

Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee

Nir Kossovsky - Wednesday, June 10, 2009
On June 30 2008, Margaret (Peggy) M. Foran was appointed to executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Sara Lee Corp (NYSE:SLE).  In addition to overseeing the company’s worldwide legal activities, Peggy led Global Business Practices, risk management, internal audit and insurance activities, as well as environmental, safety and sustainability efforts. In our parlance, she was Sara Lee’s risk and reputation officer. She reported to Brenda C. Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer, Sara Lee Corp. On June 9th, after less than one year on the job, she abruptly stepped down “for personal reasons.”

What’s going on in the background? Dogs -- hot dogs, to be exact. There is the May 2009 lawsuit filed by Sara Lee against Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT) for false advertising – the so called hot dog wars. There is the concurrent recall of 1700 pounds of Sara Lee Ball Park brand hot dogs for mislabeling.  Hardly steamy stuff.

Is there some reputational risk lurking for which an indication or warning might be found in the Steel City Re IA (Corporate Reputation) Index?. The Index, which correlates with reputation surveys such as those published by Forbes, Fortune, and Harris Interactive, captures the financial implications of stakeholder behaviors and expectations of stakeholder behaviors as determined by corporate reputation. The Index is a good leading indicator of financial performance and returns on equity.

 

The Steel City Re Index shows that the reputation metric has been hovering in the 40th percentile amond the 48 companies in the Packaged foods & meats sector this past year. Although there is a distinct upward movement from the 40th to the 50th percentile co-incident with Ms. Foran's appointment, the trend has otherwise been downward until a recent recapture of lost ground. Although EWMA volatility has been declining, it is still at 4log orders of magnitude. Economically, over the past twelve months, SLE has underperformed its peers by 16.5%. In short, the mystery is why the dog didn't bark.

By our indications and warnings metrics, this type of economic underperformance in the setting of an already low reputation index increases the risk of business process corner-cutting -- actions that can lead to business process failures and expose a company's reputation to a myriad of perils and headline risk.

Ms Foran joined Sara Lee with a stellar reputation of her own. In CEO Barnes' welcome announcement last year, she said "During her three-decade long career, Peggy has earned the respect of corporate leaders, stakeholders, directors, investors and peers. She is recognized worldwide as a true leader with a reputation for the highest levels of personal integrity." She had tours of duty at Pfizer, ITT, and JP Morgan. 

We'll be following this one closely.

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