Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cleveland Ohio Economy and Small Business Status

Here are some recent observations about the state of the economy, from the viewpoint of a small business owner (I have a few diverse small businesses) that has also been discussing business and sales trends with other small and medium business owners throughout the greater Cleveland, Ohio and Northeast Ohio region. The observations surely do not leave much room for optimism about the economy at present.

Example #1: Home Theater Business
A relative of mine owns a small business providing Cleveland area Home Theater, Audio, and Video installation, sales, and design services - and even though he has been in business for over 10 years, he has never seen business as slow as it is now. His is a business that serves a demographic that would clearly be described as "upper middle class" and/or "upper class".

The clientele that keep my relative's company busy have included coaches from professional sports teams, players from those same teams, doctors, executives, and other rather well compensated individuals. Much of his company business comes by word of mouth and personal referrals. He has never had to advertise in order to obtain more work than his company can handle. But, suddenly, WHAM, this current economic mess has even these rather "upper end" clients hesitating at committing dollars to upgrading or otherwise investing in their home theater, multimedia, and audio-visual needs.

And, if these people are not engaging my relative's business for things like product purchases, wiring and other installation services, design and implementation services, and the like, the "trickle down" effect is immediate: my relative can not afford to keep as many employees active and employed. Sure, his company still sells some home theater and HDTV / digital-television equipment (especially as people hurry to be ready for the February 2009 digital TV cut-over and transition away from analog TV), but when the volume drops to the lowest level he has ever seen, it really puts the pressure on the viability of his company.

Sure, he will make it through the slowdown, but it is not even clear if the business will turn much, if any, profit while trying to maintain employees to handle those jobs that do come through yet. This is what a typical small business in Northeast Ohio is feeling right now - and the rest of the country too I expect.

The market-wide panic, and lack of buying, ripples through causing others to cut back employment and buying, which ripples through... etc. etc. It all becomes a self-fulfilling downturn: people expect a downturn, they alter their expenditure and investment habits, and gee... a slowdown occurs as they expected.

Example #2: Independent Book Publishing
One of my businesses is independent book publishing. I authored and published a Gluten-Free / Wheat-Free Recipes (Desserts) Cook Book that I sell almost exclusively via my online website. Over the past couple years of selling, I noticed this VERY strong inverse correlation between gas prices and my book sales: meaning, when gas prices went up, my sales would slow, and vice-versa.

But, after this last round of super high gas prices, and the precipitous fall to the lowest prices in years, that same pattern of book sales increases that normally accompany the fall in gas prices did not emerge. This was the first time ever that book sales did not increase when gas prices fell!

Fact is, this demonstrates a LOT about how much market panic there is, and how close to the edge everyone has been, and/or is, living - with regards to their finances. Credit cards are maxed out. People have little to zero cash. Credit limits are being cut, making "extra" credit or "excess / available" credit shrink quickly. The results on my book sales are immediate.

Further proof: even discounting my book heavily has made little difference in sales! In the past, if I ran a temporary discount or promotional sale, book sales increased dramatically and in direct response to that short-lived promotion. Now, even deep discounts have made little change to book sales volumes. People do not have, or are not willing to spend, any money - PERIOD. Even though my book can save them money by teaching them how to bake gluten-free items at home (which saves a fortune over pre-made GF diet foods), they STILL hesitate to spend even $20.00 on a book.

The ONLY exception to sales volume has been that our "scratch and dent books" (those with MINOR scratches or bends from banding of boxes on pallets during shipment, etc) have been selling as quickly as we find any in our inventory. Why? Simple: I sell them for under $10! THAT is the price threshold where people feel "OK" about spending I guess. Unreal.

Keep in mind that I performed an online survey a while back about the ideal target price for my book, and overwhelmingly people said it would be a "no brainer" purchase decision if I sold it around $20. Well, that sure changed quickly! More indication of what the economy, and fundamental mentality, is right now - and why this could lead to a full blown Depression if people do not start snapping out of this mood (it cascades everyone -- if purchases are not made for products and services, companies lay off people, and it spirals downward).

How we got here...
That is a long story, but not an overly complex one.

The idiotic move the government made last year by handing our "rebate checks" to people, while gas prices were already insanely high, allowed people to essentially bid gas prices even higher... and all those checks went to cover inflation due to bidding with more dollars for the SAME fixed supply of petroleum (which then rippled through to food, etc.) This worsened the downturn that was starting, but which remained somewhat hidden by massive debt-spending (credit-cards). Credit cards sealed our fate by allowing people to spend more than they really had, all bidding on the same commodities, causing massive commodity inflation, and the gov put the nail in the coffin with rebate checks. Home equity lines and the like, based on inflated home prices from cheap money adjustable-rate or teaser rate loans also contributed to this ability to bid things higher when they otherwise could not have been.

So, here we are post-gas-price-maximum-time after people essentially had their wallets, and bank accounts, sucked dry by the gas pumps under Bush's grand plan to bankrupt the country via insanely poor foreign policy and ludicrous energy policy (one which had us buying petroleum for the Strategic Oil Reserve at the highest prices ever, when supply was constrained like never before) - idiot! So, all of the American money handed out via rebate checks was transferred to President Bush's REAL employer (Saudi Arabia - not the US citizens).

Add on top of this the housing bubble that was created to get us out of our last stock market bubble. Pile on a burgeoning debt - all debt - public, private... it is out of control. But, we are a consumer ecomony, and our only solution to overspending (per politicians) is spend more.

Where things are headed...
Fact is, we have a HUGE problem.
I predict MASSIVE LAYOFFS in January 2009 and February 2009.

MASSIVE - especially if people do not take a chance and spend some money on products and services provided by small businesses. Small businesses employ over 1/2 the workforce. All we here about is businesses that are "too big to fail", but the fact is, widespread failure of small businesses will be catastrophic.

Large businesses will weather the storm just fine and do their usual mass layoffs regardless of their sales volumes. But, small businesses do not have the resources (in general) to keep all their employees on staff for any length of time if revenue streams suddenly dry up or are reduced to a trickle. The government (i.e., US!) is not going to bail US small businesses out... only our customers can by purchasing our products and services.

The observations from my vantage point in Cleveland Ohio are certain to be similar to observations elsewhere in the country. So, if you want to see your own local economy do well, try not to fall too far down the well of fear -- engage your local small businesses when possible, and help them maintain their employees/staffing through this economic mess. These are your friends and neighbors' jobs I am talking about.

As for large companies: I am sick of reading this stuff about companies laying off hundreds or thousands of workers were it costs them $50K, $100K, or MORE on a "per head" basis to lay people off. These unemployed workers will hesitate to spend, and further flood the market of workers seeking work.

I have a better idea for companies, like Adobe for example, to consider. When I hear how they will spend $80K/head (roughly 1yr average salary) to get rid of someone, I find it insane. Instead, tell your workers that, should things NOT improve in a year, they will be out of a job with only a month of severance pay starting ONE YEAR from now, but not immediate. During that year, while still employed, they can look for a job, but they can also focus on adding value to the company and improving efficiency, and if the end result is the company does better than expected, they will KEEP their job(s). And, since they are not part of the unemployment mess, overall market sediment will likely be more optimistic, thus creating a positive impact on the economy, including the company they work for.

I just do not get the whole thing about paying tons of money to get rid of someone - it is rather short-sighted, and furthers the downward economic pressures and overall negative sediment that looms large right now (especially employment fears). I personally will try my best to have my businesses keep everyone employed as long as possible, in hopes of remaining a strong viable group of businesses while other businesses cut their resources to the bone and jeapardize their own long-term viability.

I have told my employees that things may get slow, but that corporate profits are of little concern in the short term if it means we are best positioned in the long term when the economy improves in general. I wish more companies took this stance, as we would all be less likely to experience an inevitable deep economic downturn and worsening of the employment market.

Speaking of business: time to get back to work!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

3D CAD Software Review - Free, Cheap, Affordable, and others

For a long time I have been fascinated by modern 3-dimensional modeling capabilities that 3D CAD Software makes possible, but at the same time I have been frustrated by the cost of such software.

I have had dreams of using CAD software to help me take the ideas I see in my mind, and put them into a visual model to share with others. I am always trying to invent some new product, design some variation or improvement on an existing product, and just apply creativite thinking to all sorts of mechanical design situations and opportunities. But, there is only so much you can do with just paper and pencil or pen.

Sure, a pad of paper and pen can help with getting that idea for a new invention down on paper, but... from my experience, something can APPEAR (on paper) to work, but can not be built. You just can not get a true feel for the 3D interaction of parts, especially in a complex mechanism or structure, using old-fashioned paper/pen techniques -- certainly not effectively or efficiently. The fact is, 2D design and 3D modeling software (aka, CAD - Computer Aided Design) is a HUGE improvement over hand-drawing, and 3D modeling is quite nice for working things out before building.

You can save a fortune by avoiding costly pre-manufacturing missteps by creating a detailed and accurate 3D model ahead of time, and you can even produce a nice bill of materials (BOM) and calculate the center-of-gravity from the CAD image too (in applications that include such a feature). Try doing that by hand! So, I decided it was time to make the leap and purchase a professional-quality full-featured CAD system for my own idea development, in hopes of bringing my inventions to reality.

My Findings and CAD Research Outcome

"Big name" CAD software like AutoDesk AutoCad, Solid, Pro/Engineer ("Pro/E") and the like are prohibitively expensive for the someone like me that wants to essentially experiment with 2D/3D design and modeling for developing some of my own product ideas in a visual manner. Some of those software packages are many thousands of dollars, which is far beyond the reach of hobbyist CAD pricing to say the least. And, I can get compatibility with those products at a much lower cost.

In fact, if you have been looking for affordable, relatively cheap, low cost, low price 3D CAD software that can fit a hobby budget or small business or startup business budget, you have surely encountered the same types of things I ran into: in general, there were two classes of CAD Software on the market; 1) full featured and expensive, and 2) cheaper, but lacking most features I consider a "requirement", including 3D solid modeling and extrusion from 2D surface drawings.

Thankfully, after evaluating a pile of CAD applications, I found one that fits my needs: VariCAD. But, in order to reach that conclusion and determine which was the best affordable 3D CAD software, I looked at a plethora of packages, including these just to name a few: Bryce CAD, QCAD, Google Sketchup Pro, IntelliCAD-based software like Bricsys, VariCAD (obviously) and quite a few others.

My criteria for CAD software evaluation was rather straight forward and simple:
  • I weighed features against price to determine a price-to-performance ratio. I also pitched anything above a couple thousand dollars - that was just out of my price range, and certainly out of the range that would make a solution a fit for other hobbyist inventors and designers.
  • I looked for active product development - and threw out a lot of otherwise prospective CAD/design software just because it appeared that companies were not keeping their product up-to-date or otherwise releasing bug-fixes and/or updates
  • and, perhaps most important was my requirement that without any prior knowledge of the CAD software, and without reading any manual or help files, I would be able to quickly feel comfortable and productive uwing the CAD software UI (User Interface) and be able to draw and manipulate 2D and 3D objects.
  • In summary: it had to be easy to learn, intuitive, full-featured, and reasonably priced CAD / CAM software to meet my criteria.
My Choice: VariCAD 2D/3D - and here is why.
So many of the CAD packages I tried were either not intuitive or lacking features. Some had really nifty and modern UI's, but lacked the professional features I needed. Others were perhaps exceptionally "powerful" and feature-rich, but so overly complex I could not make sense of them no matter how hard I tried.

I spent nearly two weeks installing software trials, testing them out for up to a few hours each (and, if they made my "consideration list", up to a full day of testing), and trying to "build" just a few simple 2D and 3D models. In the end, the clear winner was VariCAD. I had a second "runner up" of sorts that nearly matched VariCAD for features and usability, but it was nearly twice the price.

I liked the UI in VariCAD quite a bit. Sure, it has some room for improvement to fit "my perfect way" of doing things, but my way is no more likely to be "your way" than what VariCAD's UI offers by default. It does implement fancy Microsoft "ribbon-bar" or Vista-specific UI elements or such, and looks more like a traditional Windows-XP application (for good reason - this software runs cross platform on Windows and Linux).

I liked that I could quickly and easily, in 3-dimension mode, figure out how to size, scale, rotate, intersect, remove, etc. Here is a quick example of something I created after just a few minutes of practice.



This tiny little part I made used various features of VariCAD, where I had multiple 3-dimensional parts connected together. Then, I really liked how VariCAD had all these sorts of "tools" to use: drill, mill, groove, fillet, chamfer... .and, VariCAD also has all these pre-defined ANSI/ISO parts available for screws, nuts, bolts, etc. You can see how I chamfered the edges of my little test part, and then I made the holes by "virtually drilling" or whatever, and/or doing an intersection-removal of a predefined screw-shape. It was all EASY. And, this was a HUGE selling point for me.

And, as you can see, there is a neat screen-shot / display export. VariCAD makes saving an image easy to do (has high-res export of current view). Plus it can calculate a bill of material and center of gravity (has a list of all sorts of base-materials from pre-defined tubings, metals, plastics, etc that it "knows" all the information needed to calculate). There are dimensioning lines available in orthographic views too, making my drawings easy for an engineer to completely understand and build parts to exact specifications.

I like how VariCAD is a 3D/2D CAD system primarily intended for mechanical engineering design - since, it is my mental "visions" for products I needed to turn into true mathematical / visual representations that others can see and/or manufacture parts for - precisely. In addition to powerful tools for 3D modeling and 2D drafting and dimensioning, the CAD system provides libraries of standard mechanical parts (ANSI, DIN), calculations of standard mechanical components, and tools for working with bills of materials (BOM) and blocks.

BOTTOM LINE: If you have been looking for an affordable and inexpensive alternative to AutoDesk AutoCAD, SolidWorks, Pro/Engineer ("Pro/E") and the like, while maintaining a degree of compatibility with those expensive titles, VariCAD is perhaps just what you were looking for, with excellent 2d and 3d CAD Features in a Powerful yet Affordable Cross-Platform 2D and 3D CAD Software (Windows / Linux) in either 32-bit or 64-bit versions.

It is compatible with "the big name CAD packages too" via import/export of common CAD file formats like: DWG, DXF, IGES, STEP and STL. So, I feel quite comfortable that whatever I create, I can give my drawings to fabricators and designers to help me realize my inventions in physical form.

This affordable CAD software represents a rather unbelievable bargain for such a capable application.  It is a 3D CAD software with professional features at rock-bottom pricing  (well under $1,000, and if you catch a sale they run, it can be as little as ~$500 or so including a year of support and software updates. As such, VariCAD costs no more than many amateur-type productswhile providing full-featured professional CAD / CAM abilities.

Now, time to get busy inventing more products and put my CAD s/w to use! (actually, it IS FREE for 30-day trials if you want to check it out and confirm what I have written here - just go to Varicad.com and read more about it and find links to the Free Trial CAD Software Download and purchase information, etc.).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Credit Cards : Small Business = Personal Guarantee

Since I own a few small businesses, I receive a boat load of small business credit card applications. The mailers always say the same thing in GIANT BOLD PRINT: get your "BUSINESS CREDIT CARD".

Yeah, sure... "business" credit card, so long as you sign with a personal guarantee.

As I sit here watching the unraveling of the American debt-laden financial system in this current economic crisis, I can not help getting a bit upset about the sick irony that these bank credit card offers present. That is, if you are a large company, a public company, and/or have reached some magical "size" threshold where, as an incorporated entity alone, credit is issued and secured ONLY by the assets of the company (as opposed to requiring any sort of personal guarantee by corporate officers and the like).

So, as all these massive corporations default on their debt, file for bankruptcy, and so in... I can not help but find these "business credit card offers" (that require my personal guarantee of payment) all ironic, sickening, and disturbing. A small business entity with small amounts of credit must secure their credit personally, but yet a "large enough" business can borrow hoards of cash and default on payment (repeatedly in many cases -- where companies have been given many a chance, gone bankrupt repeatedly, etc - like airlines e.g.) and still not be required to offer any personal guarantees from corporate officers.

I really believe this is, in large part, why corporate management in this country is so terrible. There is little vested stake in the DOWN-SIDE of the business should anything go wrong. Contrast that to the fact that if I take out "business credit" in the name of one of my small businesses, that I am really taking out money that I PERSONALLY guarantee to repay. Who do you think has more incentive to PAY BACK THE LOANS?

So, while the biggest of the big companies can borrow with nearly no limit (especially in the day of government-backstopped borrowing), and repeatedly default - sticking banks and investors with huge losses and write-downs - the small borrower does not have such a luxury of non-repayment. Instead, we have to personally guarantee every last dollar borrowed with these "business credit cards" and "business loans" that are nothing more than personal credit cards and personal loans that happen to also include someone typing the name of our business on the application in addition to our personal information.

I am not saying that there should not be personal guarantees for credit on small business loans, especially if the small business has not been around for a long time or shown significant credit worthiness. Instead, I am saying that there needs to be more "risk" for large business borrowing - risk to these insanely over-compensated executive managers that can take millions or billions in compensation and stock options during the good times (heck, even during the bad!), but yet not be on the hook for a dime in personal losses when the company defaults on loans a mere year or two later... when, obviously some of that insane compensation should have went to paying down debt or avoiding debt in the first place.

There are rampant cases of this personal-profit, company-loss scenario among large companies, but yet they continue to obtain credit without personal guarantees. And, here I am getting my nearly daily mail about how to get my "business credit card" which I have to guarantee personally. So, a note to all you banks that send me these offers for "business credit": get lost!

I will take such an offer (perhaps) when the playing field is level and those "large companies" that continually stick banks with Billions of dollars in losses will have their own management personally guarantee some of those loans. I guarantee I am a better credit risk than GM, Ford, or Chyrsler, and I still do not see banks (or the US government) demanding PERSONAL GUARANTEES from those corporate executives!

Friday, November 14, 2008

JCPenny (NYSE:JCP) Merchandise Giveaway; Profits Lower

I had a very timely experience with what I call "sales plan insanity" at J.C. Penny recently, where JC Penny was essentially giving inventory away for nearly nothing (almost FREE). And, when I first encountered this sales strategy first hand, I knew for certain that JCPenny's earnings were going to suffer dramatically.

But, I guess the "analysts" that cover J.C. Penny Stock (NYSE:JCP), do not bother actually visiting the department store they are "analyzing". If they had, perhaps they would not so often be incorrect in their "analyst estimates" that seem to always miss the mark, as today's Bloomberg story on JC Penny earnings stated:
Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) -- J.C. Penney Co., the third-largest U.S. department-store company, forecast earnings that trailed analysts' estimates and posted its fifth straight quarterly profit decline as shoppers cut spending on home goods and jewelry.
[...]
Third-quarter net income decreased 52 percent to $124 million, or 56 cents a share, from $261 million, or $1.17 a share, a year earlier, the department-store chain said in a statement. Sales fell 8.7 percent to $4.32 billion from $4.73 billion.
Let me clue all you Wall Street analysts in as to how insane the management at various retailer in the United States is behaving: they are selling products for next to nothing, with obviously zero margin or, quite likely, negative margin.

This is not just conjecture, but rather fact that I will demonstrate with my recent sales receipt from J.C. Penny (click image to view larger size):



This is ridiculous! J.C. Penny has been sending (in the mail) these special Sales-Event Coupons for "$10 off $10 or more". First of all, that is just stupid! Every time they send one, I pick up more free or nearly-free items. Come on management: wake up and make it $10 off $20 at least (50% off is STILL darn good, and you may actually break even on the proposition). I realize you *hope* people will come in and buy much more than $10, but in this current economic environment, that is a bet I would not take.

The last time I got a coupon in the mail, I went looking around Pennys for kicks again, to see what I could perhaps use. I stumbled upon sales for 75% off on a few Polo shirts (and that was off existing markdowns or something). And, it gets better... they had yet another promo going where you could buy one get one (BOGO) too, and none of THESE promotions were excluded on that $10-of-$10 coupon.

Look at that receipt showing the proof of this SALES INSANITY: I purchased a total of 3 shirts that originally retailed for $104.00 for a grand-total, after Sales Tax, of $5.84. Give me a break! What moron management team came up with these incentives? I can not help thinking that they would have done better just to give the inventory to charity and write it off. How can you cover the cost of goods, let alone the cost of labor, advertising, floor-space, and so on by doing this?

Well, the bottom line is that this speaks volumes as to the state of the PANIC IN RETAIL right now. Retail stocks are all beaten down on the stock market, and for good reason -- the management of most retailers has decided that, in order to show any revenue production, they will have to engage in an insane race to the bottom along with all their competitors. As such, do not be TOO surprised if these stock market "analysts" continue to miss obvious indicators that earnings are going to be terrible for a long time to come.

Perhaps some bright spots will emerge in Retail yet (aside form WalMart), but it is a bit early to tell. Even though I am very cautious about investing in retail stocks, I have taken some "Mall walks" the past few weeks on various days of the week to see if any particular retailers seem to "stand out" consistently with regard to foot-traffic and, more importantly, purchases (I look to see what brand's bags are being carried around the Mall by people - if any one brand stands out).

I spotted a couple retailers that have my interest, like New York & Company (NYSE:NWY) being one I noticed decent store / Mall activity in, and a couple others. In the case of NWY, their stock is trading for around $2.00, so for the price I paid for my three uber-discount JC Penny shirts, I could purchase nearly 3 shares (or, at the original retail price of those shirts, I could purchase 50 shares). This puts the retail pricing strategy into perspective even more perhaps.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Stock Analysis: Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) and Ford (NYSE:F) Company Performance

I just have to compare and contrast the operating results reported by two companies today (Nvidia and Ford Motors), and especially discuss a fundamental difference between these two companies' management philosophies and ability to adapt to changing markets. That difference is a large one, and an obvious one: market agility and anticipating the future - Nvidia does this well, Ford does not.

Both have faced similar challenges with regards to their products and markets lately: their markets have been challenged by competitors (for Nvidia, that mean AMD / ATI; for Ford, just think Toyota, Honda, etc.), consumers have been demanding different products (for Ford, that means higher mileage cars; for Nvidia, that means higher performing graphics processors and more and improved Notebook graphics chip functionality), and each company has seen their products caught in a period of transition.

But, where they differ dramatically is in how they reacted to these challenges, and how quickly they reacted to known changes as well as anticipating uncertainty.

Let me start by quickly presenting an excerpt from earnings reports for each company - first Ford, then Nvidia:
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Ford Motor reported a $3 billion operating loss in the latest quarter, and said Friday it would reduce staff and capital spending in order to preserve its dwindling cash.

Ford said it would cut salaried employment costs by 10% - reducing compensation of its white collar workers by eliminating merit pay, bonuses and the company's matching contributions to their retirement accounts.
Now, Nvidiia's quarterly results release:

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Graphics chipmaker Nvidia Corp reported quarterly results on Thursday that topped Wall Street's estimate, as the company held the line on expenses while sales fell, and shares surged 12 percent.

Nvidia (nasdaq: NVDA) said its fiscal third-quarter net earnings for the quarter ended Oct. 26 came in at $61.7 million, or 11 cents a share, down 74 percent from $235.7 million, or 38 cents a share, in the year-ago period.

But after excluding items related to the company's recently announced layoffs and other charges, Nvidia earned 20 cents a share, beating the average analyst estimate of 12 cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.

Notice the key differences.

Nvidia

Nvidia has been profitable in the past, and REMAINED profitable by acting quickly to reduce costs in light of the fact that demand was slowing and product-mix changes were taking place. In September, the company announced plans to cut 6.5 percent of its workforce when it was obvious their market was changing, and this quick reaction has helped them avoid losses.

You can argue that a graphics chip maker is inherently more agile than a car company because of the product lead-time and engineering/manufacturing cycle brevity compared to building cars, but on the other hand, that same logic must be applied to *competitors* that can also move just as fast to change their lineup of graphics cards and GPU offerings. So, Nvidia deserves credit for having management that is willing to act quickly, and decisively, in order to keep products inline with consumer expectations while keeping costs down as sales volume deteriorates a bit during a macroeconomic slowdown.

In addition, Nvidia shows foresight for future demand and growth in the parallel computing field with their CUDA offerings (this CUDA parallel processing cores feature is in nearly all their current GeForce and Quadro product lineup). I have been watching more and more commercial applications target this particular Nvidia platform advantage (which, I consider to be VERY large), and have seen applications like the upcoming Adobe Creative Suite CS4 even marketed as being best-with-Nvidia cards (and, Nvidia has a nice new high-end Quadro video card marketed specifically to Adobe CS4 users). This is great product planning, and will give them sales for many quarters to come.

And, if this were not enough reason to consider Nvidia a company with great foresight and momentum, consider how Apple Computer has just started offering the Nvidia mobile GeForce chipsets / GPUs in their new notebook lineup. As soon as I heard that news, it was even more obvious that Nvidia is making moves to future-proof their sales and grow their markets.

Ford

Ford has been losing money for a long time, and even while losing money, their management consistently acts slowly to reduce costs in light of the fact that demand was slowing and competitors were eating them alive. Ford Motors seems destined to live up to the image of the American Auto in general: outdated and behind the competition. Their entrenched management (just like General Motors) is a bunch of overpaid executives whose only tangible "plan" to fix things of late is to borrow (or be handed) more money from the United States Government and taxpayers.

I won't get into how lame this whole "rewarding failure" concept is with giving incentives to companies that fail is (instead of rewarding those that succeed and produce profits and jobs!), but it is highly indicative of the underlying problem with Ford and GM. They still, even after massive multi-Billion dollar repetitive quarterly losses, fail to act BEFORE the crisis gets worse, and are never able (or willing) to get ahead of the curve and show that they have any sort of visionary management abilities.

It is not like they have no knowledge of where the consumer is headed, where the economy is heading, and how their products stack up against the competition in regards to quality, features, mileage, and the like (start by reading Consumer Reports guys!). Nvidia has the same knowledge of what their competitors are doing (AMD's ATI division especially), and they must act to counter such competition quickly - and they do!

Ford looks like a slug by comparison to Nvidia, and repeatedly fails to deliver REAL change, and by the time (if ever it occurs) their management makes the DEEP CUTS and GROUNDBREAKING CHANGES required, they will have burned all their cash and find themselves once again knocking on Uncle Sam's door in hopes of more easy money. This door-knocking must be ignored, as it only encourages a repeat of their lame decisions, and will reinforce poor management "vision" while essentially penalizing those auto companies that DO have good vision for their companies' futures (by essentially subsidizing inferior products from Ford or any other competitor that is using government funds to prop-up their business).

Summary
Well, I think it is time to let some of the Silicon Valley management have their shot at Ford Motors management - or at least some of their foresight needs to go into play in Detroit. Funny thing is, the one Silicon Valley motor company I really find interesting (Tesla Motors) has breakthrough forward-looking products (like fully Electric sports cars), is creating new Auto-industry jobs, but yet has to compete with Detroit's entrenched industry without the massive handouts and support packages from the US government.

Instead, Tesla must secure private funding at market rates, and actually produce a product people want and set a price-point for its products where it can stay in business and perhaps even post a product. Gee, what an idea! All the more reason Detroit's antiquated auto industry needs to be allowed to simply DIE if they can not do the same -- it is time to reward success, and not failure. And, with regards to today's stock analysis, I plan to reward Nvidia's success with further purchase of their products (I have a Quadro in mind for before EOY 2008 yet) and their stock; but, by contrast, there is ZERO chance I will be buying a Ford product or company stock!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe-the-Plumber Demonstrates Business and Tax Ignorance in America

I am not picking on "Joe the Plumber", though I need to start with this very current and in-your-face example that both candidates used in yesterday's presidential debate (quote from Fox news article link above):
Joe Wurzelbacher, 34, told Obama that he was preparing to buy the plumbing company he works for, and that its revenues come to more than $250,000 a year.
Does everyone realize how sad it is that people do not understand the difference between REVENUE and INCOME?! There is no income tax plan in America (whether presented by a Democrat or Republican) that sets tax threshold based on *revenue* of a company.

I could not believe it when Obama did not jump right on this fact and clearly say something like, "you know John (McCain), nobody is proposing taxing revenue, but rather *income*. It is only the business *income* that matters, and I will only increase taxes on the *income* over $250K/year. And, nobody is taxing a purchase of a business either, so the purchase price is irrelevant (except for the seller, who is presumably getting a favorable cap-gains rate already)." But, Obama and McCain, like most Americans, obviously lack the understanding of our current tax-code, even as they propose changes to it to improve it.

In addition, people incorrectly seem to think that if a tax-rate increase goes into effect for >$250K earnings that it raises taxes on dollars #1 through #250K, which is NOT the case. Our tax-tiers are additive bands, and the money earned in each "band" is taxed at that band's rate and that rate only, and have always been so. I.e., even if you make $300K, and taxes are raised by 3% on any income over $250K, you are paying 3% on the 50K beyond that 250K threshold, which is $1500/year. You are NOT paying 3% more on the entire 300K. No tax plan EVER has implemented such a thing. Again, I fault Obama for not pointing this out CLEARLY to everyone so as to dismiss the McCain fear-factor approach regarding Obama's plan to raise taxes on the income earned that EXCEEDS the $250K threshold, and ONLY on that amount. This is simply trying to return tax-band-rates on the upper-most tax-bands to rates similar to the Clinton era (which, if you noticed, we experienced a prolonged economic expansion during such times, and had much smaller deficits - it surely did not punish business or job-creation!)

American ignorance (in general) when it comes to understanding business and taxes is sad. It should be a requirement that we ALL learn about how a small business operation works, and about income taxes and how they are structured, so we know the basics. This should be a high-school class. The basics can be learned in just a couple weeks. And, it needs to be taught without regard to politics: we do not need teachers saying that either the Democrat's or Republican's version of taxation is "better" or "more fair" or whatever. Let people learn the tax code, and about how revenues, expenses, tax-credits, incentives, and all that come into play, and how it is net-profit (i.e., income) that is what matters most when it comes to taxation at a Federal level.

But, for now, the average American remains absolutely clueless with regards to taxes (in general), and especially in regards to taxes as they apply to small businesses. As such, John McCain can use the fear of taxes as a weapon against Barack Obama. And, because Barack seems to not command the details behind our tax-code, he is ill-equiped to stave off these attacks even though doing so should be SIMPLE.

Out candidates both prove that THEY are clueless in the matters of business and taxation, especially in regards to the "little guy"... they talk about education in America, but show they have no knowledge of how business and finance work for most of America. So, please candidates, get on the ball. I doubt John McCain really cares to learn (since his policies target large business and the absolute upper-few percent of incomes more than anything), but certainly Obama should be able to get some people onboard with his campaign to help him counter the fear/scare tactics of McCain. Talk to me Barack, I will GLADLY help your campaign with small-business issues... I own a few small businesses, and have for many years. I understand this all rather well, and can help explain to others that your plan really is not going to hurt small business AT ALL.

Sure, you have Warren Buffet and Robert Rubin as advisers, but you need someone that also represents the "small guy", the small business owner, and the concerns of the average American business owner. I will join your advisory board, and I do not expect compensation. I will make the same offer to McCain, but I really do not believe his interests lie in helping those that make less than $250K/year (income! not revenue people... income!), and as such, this would exclude 98% of small businesses from his target audience (though he surely has tried to scare ALL small business by misrepresenting tax-code and Obama's tax plan).

And, I have not even started on how insanely stupid McCain's health-care proposal is... he is incentivising me to drop the health-care plan I currently offer my employees and sticking my employees with the burden of acquiring healthcare for themselves at (I guarantee) a MUCH higher price than what I, as a business owner, get group-rates for. But, that is another issue.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Intel X-25M SSD Benchmark Results (NASDAQ:INTC)

I just purchased an Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) X-25M 80GB SATA SSD (Solid State Drive) from Buy.com (search for:X25M80GB) for $638.00 (a splurge, but I really wanted to speed up my primary software development desktop system!) I am pleased to report that, even with this "investment" coming at a rather steep price compared to traditional SATA hard-drives, I think it is worth it because of the massive productivity improvements I am seeing.

This "disk drive" (or, more appropriately, RAMDISK), is tiny and has no fan and makes zero noise because there are no moving parts. It is 2.5" form-factor drive, like a notebook drive, with a standard SATA interface and SATA power-cable (low-profile) connection. It installs just like any other SATA disk, and all I had to do was open up my machine, connect the cables, boot Windows (I still use XP Professional, as I have a dislike for Windows Vista still), and format the drive from Disk Manager utility.

TEST SETUP
I performed my tests on my Dell Dimension 9150 Desktop which has an Intel Pentium D 2.80Ghz Dual Core, 4GB RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, and SATA drives.

I do nearly all my work inside virtual machines, and as such, it is the performance of launching those VMs and running applications within those VMs that I have compared. For my Virtual-Machine testing, I am using VMWare Player 6.0 to run the VMs I created with VMware Workstation 6.0.

I especially do a lot of development in the Borland Delphi (aka, CodeGear Delphi, aka Embarcadero Delphi) IDE application. So, I have Delphi 2006 (D2006) Enterprise running under Windows 2003 Server with SP2 inside a VM, with a few Delphi component-sets installed that load into environment on startup (like Rave Reports, Raize Components, MustangPeak listview and treeview components, and QuickReports).

The Virtual Machine used in any benchmark below resides fully on whatever device it is that I am testing.


BENCHMARK RESULTS
For the speed comparison, I tested the same features and functionality with my test Virtual Machine running from either 1) a local Western Digital 7200 RPM SATA drive, 2) a QNAP NAS RAID-1 Gigabit-Ethernet connected device, or 3) the new Intel SSD installed on my local machine.

I saw INCREDIBLE RESULTS with the Intel SSD delivering MASSIVE SPEED IMPROVEMENTS for every operation I tested, as you will see in the table below. My tests were limited, as the speed-improvement trend was quickly apparent in everything I tried. In general, execution/load times when using the Intel SSD device were reduced by 50-80% as compared to the other devices - WOW! My tests included:
  • Booting WindowsXP to login prompt. Just like it sounds.
  • Starting Delphi 2006 "cold" after Windows first booted up, with D2006 loading the last-used project (same for each test) and to the familiar Delphi "Welcome" page.
  • Using D2006 to compile my largest project - that project is my own custom software that is 50+ units and 50,000+ lines of my own code, not to mention 10's of 1000s of lines of linked in code.
  • Using the BDS (Borland Developer Studio) Help System to "filter" the results in help to a particular language (in this case: language = Delphi), since Borland also includes other Help for C++ and Windows APIs and all sorts of stuff I don't normally want my search to encompass. Though this may sound trivial, just selecting the "filter" operation drove me nuts in the past due to how slow it was. Thankfully, the SSD speeds this up INCREDIBLY!
  • A "Find-in-Files" operation, where I search my large Delphi project for instances of various words, including searching files that are not already open in the IDE.
Here is a table showing how long the same operation took to perform in one of three configurations.
Elapsed times are in SECONDS(Lower is better!)
INTEL X25M SSD
QNAP SATA RAID over Gigabit Ethernet
Local WD 7200RPM SATA
Boot Windows XP to Login Prompt
36s
83s
112s
Delphi 2006 : Launch IDE
17s
40s
35s
Delphi 2006 : Compile a large project
Instant
4s
4s
Delphi 2006 : Filter Help by "Lang : Delphi"
2s
10s+
8s+
Delphi 2006 : Find-in-Files operation
Instant
1.5s
1.5s

CONCLUSION
As I expected when I wrote about the Intel X-25M, X-25E, and X18M SSD Specifications on my blog recently, Intel's new Solid State Drive delivered a substantial performance boost to my desktop. I am now limited only by the throughput of my somewhat outdated desktop CPU and the bandwidth of the SATA bus that I have the SSD installed on. If cost were no concern, I would definitely install a SATA RAID card and RAID 4 of these SSDs together to achieve insane throughput rates. But, that will have to wait until prices fall dramatically to become an option that is more affordable.

I do expect the price to fall somewhat quickly by the second quarter of 2009 as other competitors come on line with SSD offerings, and as production is ramped up in general. In the short term, I actually noticed that Buy.Com increased the price by $30.00, perhaps due to strong demand, to $668.99. I will be waiting for a price drop or promotion before getting a second one for my primary Windows XP boot / OS drive.

I think there is certainly potential for ROI (Return-On-Investment) justification for this Intel SSD already. Fact is, if you find yourself spending a fair amount of your day waiting for your computer to keep up with you (due to slow disk drives), the Intel SSD will deliver outstanding improvements and make your day more productive and tolerable. If the drive saves even 15minutes/day of a $40/hour employee's time that is otherwise wasted sitting there while a disk-drive does something, that is $10/day of savings if the newly found time is used for more productivity. As such, the ROI period would be only 2 months!

Sure, many people will not save 15minutes per day unless they do a LOT of disk-intensive work, but even 5 minutes per day savings (loading office applications and such) would pay for the Intel drive in 6 months, not to mention the MTBF (Mean-Time-Between-Failure) should be VERY low thanks to the fact there are no moving parts - so, less maintenance or down-time = money saved too. And, this device uses nearly ZERO POWER, and you will save there too (and, you will save on cooling costs, as thermal footprint is much lower than a standard disk). Consider this Intel SSD either now or in the near future... it may save you a bundle.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wall Street Executive Compensation Manifesto & Challenge: I will risk working for free, will you?


This financial and investing blog entry is directed at Mr. Paulson, The Treasury, The Federal Reserve, Congress, The White House, and Wall Street in general.


My Challenge to Wall Street and Executive Management

I hereby challenge Wall Street executives to meet or exceed my personal commitment to fixing the financial system problems in this country, and doing so with the same promise I make to REQUIRE ZERO PAY unless I, through managing such a firm, achieve success not just in the short-term, but the long-term as well, for shareholders and/or the American taxpayers. IF you believe in your abilities as much as I believe in mine, especially when you perhaps have more "experience or qualifications" to perform the job of Senior Executive of a public company than do I, you should have no problem signing onto my plan. If not, step aside and allow me, and perhaps a few associates of mine that will offer equal commitment to the task, to take over the situation and fix the problems.

I have outlined my corporate-compensation manifesto below, to which I will subscribe, and I suggest the government force other CEOs and highly compensated managers of public companies to subscribe to, especially in light of the latest "private profits, public losses" shift that leaves us ordinary citizens to bailout the result extremely bad management decisions of recent, and especially where any CEO's will be managing what is essentially a government-backed / taxpayer-backed venture going forward.

After reading this New York Times article describing the Wall Street Bailout Terms, which absolutely infuriated me, and forced me to make as clear as possible how adamant I feel about how MR. PAULSON IS ABSOLUTELY WRONG WITH CONCERNS ABOUT LIMITS ON EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION. I hereby call you and your other cronies out on the floor for a debate about WHY such high-compensation is "needed", when I am quite willing to work without pay unless I perform! Here's the quoted text that got me fired up:
"Under a so-called claw-back provision, the secretary would have the power to force companies to recoup previous payments to executives of companies involved in the program. And Mr. Frank's plan would give broad authority for the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to audit and oversee the program.
But Mr. Paulson said that he was concerned that imposing limits on the compensation of executives could discourage companies from participating in the program.

"If we design it so it's punitive and so institutions aren't going to participate, this won't work the way we need it to work," Mr. Paulson said on "Fox News Sunday." "Let's talk about executive salaries. There have been excesses there. I agree with the American people. Pay should be for performance, not for failure.
But he quickly added: "But we need this system to work, and so we — the reforms need to come afterward.""

OK, Hank,... let us focus on your statement about "Pay should be for performance" instead of the sentence (expressing concerns about compensation limits) that simply furthers the Wall Street mantra many years in the making which justifies exceedingly exorbitant salaries, options, and bonuses for executives even while companies are losing money, going under, laying off thousands, and so on. And, that part of Hank's statement about reforms needing to come afterward: BULL #@$! Reforms must happen NOW, or no (lasting) benefit will arise from these bailouts!

If that part about pay-for-performance is real in your own belief system, it is NOW time to start making executive compensation what is SHOULD be: a true risk/reward system, where for being that high-level executive and leader, you are taking the "risk" of not meeting or exceeding company profit goals, which would make your pay essentially disappear, while at the same time you have the potentially LARGE reward that comes with creating corporate and shareholder profits that lead to your own salary and bonuses being large. This is the age-old risk/reward concept.

Notice how this differs from what led us to this mess on Wall Street to begin with; i.e., the current "reward/reward" system, whereby executives get massive compensation packages even when a company makes nothing and shareholders lose millions or billions, and/or employees take the brunt of the impact of "cuts" while executives reward themselves for these actions. It is so utterly obvious that current executive management at most publicly traded firms (most: there are some exceptions) have absolutely no belief in their abilities, in their company's ability to ever generate profits, or in the prospects of their stock price ever increasing. If they did, they would not have to receive massive compensation packages for simply "doing their job" whether doing it resulted in company growth, shareholder value growth, and so on.

Right now, many corporate executives are essentially just like ANY other employee that shows up for work and gets paid whether they are an *exceptional* employee, and average one, or a complete screw-up!... but, there is one big difference: currently, these upper-level executives are getting stellar pay packages for their "efforts" whether such efforts are fruitful or fruitless or downright calamitous. This has to end.

My proposal for executive compensation change will fix Wall Street and restore investor confidence in a MEANINGFUL LONG-TERM WAY, not like this current bandage-approach of yet another bailout package. Bailouts like those being done now, and proposed now, are perhaps the WORST way to achieve any LONG-TERM investor-confidence, as there will be no fundamental change with one of the main negative influences on stock prices, investment returns, and investor confidence (i.e., corporate management whose primary concern appears to be how much, and how quickly, they can suck from the company for personal gain regardless of shareholder returns). In fact, it is quite simply a reinforcement of wrongdoing and broken practices when failures are "bailed out" without serious changes to the rules of the game.

My Executive-Compensation Manifesto
(and Challenge); circa, bailout-mentality-decade, early 21st Century.

This compensation manifesto is certainly not perfect, nor the end-all of compensation directives, but it should serve as a decent bit of foundation work to get the discussion headed in the right direction, and with additional time and effort (and input from others), I am sure it could be tuned into a doctrine that could be applied to public companies in order to reign in outlandish compensation, and more so return investor confidence and long-term shareholder value.

1. As I stated in a prior financial blog about the Government rewarding financially irresponsible companies and individuals:
"If you have risen to the level of CEO [or other Senior Executive] of some major corporation and can not afford to not make ANY money for a year or two, you do not have the financial responsibility to run such a company - period!" This should be rather clear, but if not, let me restate this: if the executive(s) have not managed their own personal finances well over the years, and built up their own "retained earnings" (i.e., some substantial savings) over the years, then they do now show financial responsibility adequate to justify their position.
Sadly, the current pool of "executive talent" that is running these public companies will perhaps meet my 1st condition simply due to the fact they have already ripped off the investors and given themselves massive financial cushions during this recent age of reward-reward executive compensation (note: I think those that fit this bill should be banned from further consideration, pending a rather detailed review into how they acquired their compensation – some of these people may be just fine for consideration, though many will prove out to be the rip-off artists that took massive pay packages for essentially, failure). I'd love to further apply this same concept to elected officials, as our government is currently made up of masses of individuals that show little financial aptitude, beyond getting elected with hopes to increase their personal fortunes after making all sorts of connections that will pay off later (most likely via the revolving door between Washington, Wall Street, and Lobbyist firms). These same people then sit down together and dream up bailout packages and debt-spending frenzies like none other, perhaps in part because they have no clue what real financial responsibility entails.
2. See item #1 for reference continually as I further expand on my executive compensation manifesto. The only exception to the zero-pay potential is that I suggest meeting any Federal or State or Local "minimum wage" base requirements, and to offer any legally-imposed benefits or benefits applied to *every* employee regardless of their pay-grade (e.g., Health Insurance plans, Sick Leave, etc.). And, to handle work-hours laws and/or overtime regulations, even though I consider Senior executives "exempt", for purposes of this manifesto adhering to any possible legal requirements, I suggest that the Senior executives, while earning the minimum-wage figure, be compensated for all hours works, and at 1.5X minimum-wage for overtime and perhaps 2X for weekend time.

3. Note how my doctrine still supports successful "startup" firms, like Google for example, that created enough wealth for their upper management through product and service innovation that resulted in strong demand for their initial public offering that their executive leadership team certainly would have met the criteria set forth in #1. These persons may have received compensation prior to going public, and I consider such compensation irrelevant for my doctrines, as shareholders in the IPO must choose what value to place on the new firm upon entering the stock-market (and, that value includes prior compensation and stock holdings by insiders). But, like any public company, after these startups have entered the realm of publicly-traded stocks (via IPOs), these people will be subject to all the terms of the manifesto from then on.

4. Any compensation packages for senior executives should be awarded in arrears. The basic reasoning is simple: as we have learned, "good" quarterly or annual financial reports can be completely and utterly misleading when viewed in the context of the long-term implications of what made particular periods "good". Examples abound, whether the "good" numbers were due to intentional hiding of the bad (like in off-balance-sheet vehicles, or just plain and simple cooking of the books), or due to overly-optimistic and aggressive tax-stances or accounting policies that will require "earnings restatements" and the like (e.g., FedEx trying to classify employees as contractors to save money - which I hear recently backfired), or due to any other reason that "good" values would be front-loaded with a pending disaster to follow (e.g., the current sub-prime mortgage debacle and resulting imminent bailout!).

The arrears-period should be long enough to make obvious any attempt to circumvent the discovery of reality by shareholders. Meaning, if actions of senior executives were truly "good" then those actions should appear good at 5 to 10 years out, when looking back upon them. This leads me to a key concept in my compensation manifesto and challenge: the current insanely-large rewards of Wall Street (to senior executives) should only remain possible IF the executives take the risk that their strategies and management decisions lead to long-term rewards for the average shareholder as well.

Here's the basic idea, which can be tuned as needed (but, not tuned to avoid the spirit of the time-proven rewards structure)
  • All earnings to be held in arrears, whether salary, bonuses, or stock-options (hereinafter referred to as "potential compensation" or "compensation" for short), will be held in a financially "safe" storage mechanism, such that executives need not worry about their potential compensation disappearing if it is indeed "earned" over time.
  • The compensation potential must be sufficiently large to induce qualified executives to take on this "risk" in order to have the chance for substantial "rewards", but, if all (publicly held) companies employ the directives contained in this manifesto (whether voluntarily, or by law), the definition of "substantial" will likely vary considerably from the insanely high and ever-increasing compensation packages management has been rewarding themselves with for the past decade or more. This leads to setting a maximum compensation potential based on a variety of data-points and criteria, which will be outlined next (others will certainly arise)…

  • Data-point 1) the company-average-employee wages. It seems only sensible that there be some correlation to the pay of the "average person" within an organization in order to encourage paying a fair living wage to all employees. Likewise, if outsourcing is employed for cost-savings initiatives within a company, any labor that is essentially replaced with outsourced-labor or other contractors will still be counted towards this average-wage by determining the end-worker's average wage.
  • Data-point 2) stock dilution. In as much as common stock (or preferred for that matter) is diluted during the tenure of executive management, their potential compensation should be diluted by an equal percentage. Contrarily, if outstanding shares of stock are reduced (i.e., concentration vs. dilution), then compensation can by multiplied by the same percentage. This should help reign in the massive dilution that seems to occur constantly in public companies as executives essentially "print stock at will" to self-reward, whether they should be rewarded or not. So as not to think this metric would encourage management to jeopardize cash-positions for the sake of stock buybacks, keep reading…
  • Data-point 3) Cash and equivalents vs. Short and Long-Term Debt. Some multiplier force will be involved to reflect solid financial practices. Now, since management must make decisions that are best for the LONG TERM corporate and shareholder returns, this consideration should in itself not dissuade management from considering financing (or, per data-point 2, equity issues) if it is truly the right thing to do for growth.
  • Data-point 4) Earnings. Another "multiplier" factor when calculating compensation (and, other factors to follow). Plain and simple, the bottom line. And, this is not any "before extraordinary items" and the like; this is the real deal and is truly net income.
  • Data-point 5) Dividends paid to shareholders. Higher payout to shareholders equals higher compensation potential. Again, this must be balanced with the preceding metrics to ensure dividends are not being paid out at the expense of corporate health (something that seems all to common these days!), but…
  • Data-point 6) Stock price. Again, decision balance is important, as stock price is directly correlated to compensation potential.
  • Data-point 7) Environmental impact. This one is not in my short-term "requirements", though it needs to be addressed soon. Fact is, a company should not reward executives that increase short-term profits at the expense of simply shifting environmental disasters to foreign countries or the like.
  • Data-point 8) ratio of total "senior executives" to normal workers. Positive correlation to compensation package. There needs to be a reason to keep some "depth" of talent in the upper ranks. But, this too needs weighed with total cost-structure for the company. The idea here is to "spread the talent, spread the responsibility, and spread the wealth" so as to potentially encourage more of a management-by-consensus or better group-dynamic at the top vs. the often highly corrosive infighting among top-management seeking power-grabs and such.
  • Data-point 9) time-delay for receiving compensation. Highly correlated multiplier to total compensation potential, offering much greater rewards for demonstrating faith in the long-term outcome of decisions. This one is quite important.
  • Data-point XYZ) I believe there are others, though for now, this is enough detail to begin a discussion certainly.
  • "Releasing" of compensation will be "tiered", with "earned" compensation being released from its holding in arrears-state in smallest portions for most recent completed time-period, and largest-releases for oldest covered time-periods. I.e., time-proven "earnings" are truly earned and delivered to the executive, and in greatest percentage for the longest-term proven results. Finally, if executive actions lead to failed long-term returns for the shareholders, or are proven to have resulted from illegal action or actions that were taken simply to manipulate compensation formulas (as I first discussed), some or all compensation for the time-period(s) in question is released back to the COMPANY immediately and into general operational assets (or, in the case of stock-options, returned to the treasury).

5. "Golden Parachutes": GONE! This practice of rewarding failure with mega-bonuses when someone is "let go" must end! This is an integral part of the RISK/reward concept. The fact is, the average employee, who doesn't enjoy the prospect of potentially earning 10's or 100's or 1000's of times their base-pay, faces the simple exit-package they deserve if they do not perform: they are fired or "downsized" or laid off or whatever. The average employee gets to collect unemployment, and/or perhaps they get a few weeks severance per year of service. Well, same should go for Senior Executives! Period!
And, to the argument that perhaps a company would engineer the early departure of an otherwise successful executive just to not pay them the rewards they have earned: I think not. Fact is, this plan of mine encourages GROUP SUCCESS, as everyone's fate is tied together, from the lowest employee to the top of the company - it is all about performance. See next point...

6. I am not ignorant of the fact that, to have one's compensation so tied to the performance of not just one's own efforts, but potentially the efforts of subsequent management, is a tough concept to accept. But, again, if you have reached the level of executive management of a public company, you best have the insight to recognize real opportunity, a solid Board of Directors, and have faith in succession planning (in fact, my plan should encourage SOLID succession planning that, again, is focused on the long-term benefit to the company and shareholders, and not just instantaneous riches through "Golden Parachutes" and the like). The goal of this overall manifesto is to encourage hiring the right people for the job, especially executive management positions, with more regard for qualifications than connections. The fact is, the entire executive layer in corporations should have an interest in the same outcome: solid corporate returns and stockholder value and growth.


SUMMARY

I guarantee that, if (the essence of these concepts are) implemented, the policies I have enumerated herein will have lasting positive effects on investor confidence in publicly traded companies and financial institutions. This will NOT be the case with a bailout plan that does nothing to fundamentally alter the way that executive pay is tied to performance. In fact, any bailout without something as sweeping as what I have described will likely just (very temporarily) postpone complete collapse that will follow, as executives will take the bailout as nothing more than reinforcement for their actions that led us here to begin with.

Some Related Observations and Discussion

I am sick of hearing that there are not "qualified people" to run these firms. Obviously the ones that have run the firms into the ground were not the best qualified, though we certainly heard much testimony to the contrary during the hiring and tenure of these individuals. It is time to expand the scope of who is capable of leading such firms to go beyond the traditional system of connected-individuals, and Boardroom-kickback-friendly stooges that so often end up running the show.

Fact is, a major change needs to occur on Wall Street before it all ends, or before we simply repeat this bubble-mentality that will yet again POP, and pop in ever larger ways, taking everything with it and starting the insane cycle of bailout-based-recoveries all over again, where the overpaid executives that cause it all will once again be the ones most highly rewarded, even as they cause the mess!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chevy Volt : GM will NEVER LEARN!

I hardly know where to start any discussion about GM and all the issues they suffer from, but perhaps first and foremost is they they NEVER LEARN when it comes to showing really hot looking "concept cars" and "prototypes" that, upon production run, turn into generic, boring, basic, (and occasionally hideous) typical GM junk.

Case in point: years ago (1994) I went to the Greater Cleveland Auto Show and saw this utterly fantastic looking version of what was supposed to be the Pontiac Sunfire. The concept looked more like what the production version of the 1995-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder looked like than anything (best I can describe), but when it hit the streets, it was god-awful generic GM junk. And my wife and I were seriously ready to purchase one of those beautiful Sunfire roadsters (as seen at the auto-show) until it was released, and we instead chose the Mitsubishi that actually looked nice when released!! GM: WAKE UP! Quit showing concepts that are nothing like what you will release... I will never buy a generic looking replacement for what you are showing off at an auto-show in a completely different form.

New example: the new Chevrolet Volt.
Again, count me out - the production Volt looks nothing like the concept that was shown for the past few years!

CONCEPT VERSION of Volt:


wow, that looks rather hot! I'll take one please!

Oh, but wait...
In typical GM fashion, that "Chevy Volt concept" has nothing to do with reality...
Instead... get ready...

PRODUCTION VERSION of Volt:


What the hell is that!?! OK, if I wanted a Ford Fusion (or some other rather basic looking four door), I'd buy one,... but I don't want THAT! I want the HOT LOOKING PROTOTYPE THAT WAS DESTROYED BY General Motors (as always!).

The prototype reminded me of the Chrysler Crossfire or such. It had some sportiness, some flair, some styling that was semi-unique, and was bold and innovative. But, as always, the GM bait-and-switch comes around again, and my interest is fading... oops, I mean GONE!

To top it off, these losers at GM are saying they can only get 30-40 miles per charge off the batteries. And, GM (and the "American auto industry") are seeking Federal loan money to the tune of $25-50 billion dollars to "improve mileage" of their cars by something like 25% (which, is like 5 MPG or so on average for their fleet - give me a break... for BILLIONS to do what you should be doing already, you should DOUBLE MILEAGE!!).

At the same time, Tesla Motors produces an (admittedly expensive and high-end) totally hot looking electric roadster (looks like a Lotus Elise) that gets 200-250 miles per charge, and they are not getting billions from the government (they did get about 20 million in tax-incentives to keep 1000 or so jobs in California at their startup manufacturing plant). Tesla is also going to produce a more mainstream vehicle with this longer range - like a family coupe or such - for around $60K.

Before anyone tells me that the Tesla is "too expensive" and not a fair comparison, think about the indirect cost of the GM/American-auto-bailout (i.e., "loan") to work on producing what another small American Silicon Valley startup is already doing without government funds. I figure that Tesla, once they ramp production, will get their cars down to a more affordable range as battery technology comes down in price too. And, Tesla doesn't enjoy anywhere near the production volume that the likes of GM do, so I find it amazing Tesla can even offer their cars for what they do.

Well, bottom line is simple: GM screws up again and loses my interest by teasing me with a hot looking prototype that is ruined on production-release. I'll give them credit with the Pontiac Solstice though - that one looks rather nice. Now, give me a Solstice that gets 40MPG with gasoline, or 150 miles on battery, and I will think about buying one!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Intel Solid State Disk Drives - Awesome!

For years I have been awaiting the release of SSDs (Solid State Disks, aka Solid State Drives, aka RAM disks) that were affordable, offered great performance, require nearly zero power consumption to operate, and come from a "mainstream" technology company in a standard interface (SATA).

Well, you can't get more mainstream than Intel, and Intel has just recently announced / released their first SATA Flash Memory SSD products (production to start this month - September 2008):
You just have to see the specifications to believe them (see below), as these drives are just unreal! Check out that super-low power consumption, and those blazing fast speeds! Oh my god I am looking forward to building the most insanely fast disk-array ever!

And, I have already purchased, and I am purchasing more, Intel stock (NASDAQ:INTC) based on the potential I see for this product. If you have been following the news about the issues large data-centers in the USA are experiencing, with regards to power-density (and not being able to get enough physical electrical power to run all the servers in a room) and the related cooling issues (again, buildings housing server rooms are being tapped-out with regards to the air-conditioning and climate-control systems, and the power to run those systems), you will see why I am so excited.

Ignoring all other performance factors of these new flash-memory standard SATA-interface hard-drives, I still see massive potential for companies to swap-out their existing spinning-disks (i.e., traditional hard-drives) in there data-centers and replace them with these new Intel Solid State Drives. It's a "no brainer" in my opinion. And, I am just talking data-centers here, and for simple power-density and heat (or lack thereof) considerations.

I have yet to even describe the incredible performance gains that some applications, like databases and the like, are going to realize from these drives. Physical IO (Input-Ouput) has always been the Achiles heel of any high-end server, as disks (in general) can not even come close to keeping up with the speed of today's modern processors (like the latest Intel and/or AMD 64-bit and multi-core offerings). But, with these new Solid-State-SATA-Drives, things are about to change... the power of the CPU(s) is about to be unleashed! I am picturing incredible new database applications, analytics, and more.

And, if that wasn't enough, couple all this new super-speed-storage from Intel with technologies like NVIDIA's CUDA - which gives programmers the ability to exploit the incredible parallel processing power of the modern NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA - another stock I am betting on for the coming years) GPUs through their CUDA development framework (essentially, Nvidia's extensions to C language). With CUDA, Nvidia has a product offering that is not just interesting, but substantially amazing, in its potential for massive financial analysis applications, data-analysis programs, and the like - by offloading compute-intensive (especially mathematical and matrix type) operations to the GPU. Nvidia only requires you own one of their GPUs from this list of CUDA-enabled Nvidia Products (GeForce 8 series ++ basically, or one of their "Tesla" servers). Oh, and what kind of processing power am I talking about here? Well, the new NVIDIA S1070 server (1U form factor too) has 4 Teraflops of performance (yes, 4 TRILLION OPERATIONS PER SECOND!). Holy $%*! So, I need only learn how to couple these new Intel SSDs and CPUs with this NVIDIA technology, and Skynet will be born! (a Terminator movie reference folks. lol.)

If that was not enough, I also guarantee that gamers (by the millions) are going to want these drives. Gaming afficionados have no problem dumping thousands on their "ultimate gaming computers" just to get a 10% speed-advantage over someone else. They will spend a thousand bucks on two new Nvidia GeForce SLI graphics cards for maximum frame-rates, and extra money on the fastest DDR RAM, and up until now, extra money for traditional RAID implementations (i.e., multiple hard drives with multiple spindles moving simultanesouly to serve up not just redundancy-enhanced data-storage, but speed given the right confiuration). Well, there is nothing even close to the speed of these new Intel SSDs when it comes to random reads, sequential reads, and nearly anything else. And, latency? Nearly non-existent!

From the Intel web-site...:

Technical specifications (Extreme SSD)

Model name Intel® X25-E Extreme SATA Solid-State Drive
Capacity 32GB and 64GB
NAND Flash components Intel® Single-Level Cell (SLC) NAND Flash Memory
10 Parallel Channel Architecture with 50nm SLC ONFI 1.0 NAND
Bandwidth Sustained sequential read: up to 250 MB/s
Sustained sequential write: up to 170 MB/s
Read Latency 75 microseconds
I/O Per Second (IOPS) Random 4KB Reads: >35,000 IOPS
Random 4KB Writes: >3,300 IOPS
Interface SATA 1.5 Gb/s and 3.0 Gb/s
Form factor 2.5" industry standard hard drive form factor
Compatibility SATA Revision 2.6 Compliant. Compatible with SATA 3 Gb/s with Native Command Queuing and SATA 1.5 Gb/s interface rates
Life expectancy 2 Million Hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)
Power consumption Active: 2.4W Typical (server workload¹)
Idle (DIPM): 0.06 W Typical
Operating shock 1,000G / 0.5ms
Voltage 5V SATA supply rail
Operating temperature 0°C to +70°C
RoHS compliant Meets the requirements of EU RoHS Compliance Directives
Product health monitoring Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (S.M.A.R.T.) commands, plus additional SSD monitoring

Technical specifications (Mainstream SSD)

Model Name Intel® X18-M Mainstream SATA Solid-State Drive
Intel® X25-M Mainstream SATA Solid-State Drive
Capacity 80GB and 160GB
NAND Flash Components Intel® Multi-Level Cell (MLC) NAND Flash Memory
10 Channel Parallel Architecture with 50nm MLC ONFI 1.0 NAND
Bandwidth Up to 250MB/s Read Speeds
Up to 70MB/s Write Speeds
Read Latency 85 microseconds
Interface SATA 1.5 Gb/s and 3.0 Gb/s
Form factor X18-M: 1.8" Industry Standard Hard Drive Form Factor
X25-M: 2.5" Industry Standard Hard Drive Form Factor
Compatibility SATA Revision 2.6 Compliant. Compatible with SATA 3.0 Gb/s with Native Command Queuing and SATA 1.5 Gb/s interface rates
Life expectancy 1.2 million hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)
Power consumption Active: 150mW Typical (PC workload¹)
Idle (DIPM): 0.06W Typical
Operating shock 1,000G / 0.5ms
Operating temperature 0°C to +70°C
RoHS Compliance Meets the requirements of EU RoHS Compliance Directives
Product health monitoring Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (S.M.A.R.T.) commands plus additional SSD monitoring


I have looked at other proprietary SSD / RAMDISK solutions over the years, and they were always insanely expensive to say the least, and the performance just wasn't worth the investment. In the past, most drives were tiny by comparison (4GB, 8GB, and maybe 16GB) for insane prices (yes, thousands; even for tiny capacities).

But now, with these new mainstream Intel SSD drives, things are about to change in a big, industry-transformational, way (and, in a "green" way too - from massive power savings and reduced cooling requirements). You wait, and you will see. The end of the hard-drive as we know it is coming, and SSDs are going to become the "standard", and I have a feeling Intel is going to lead the way with Solid State Drives using their dominant technology brand and value-proposition.

I will be anxiously awaiting the shipment-date so I can get my hands on a few of these drives. The possibilities are just too wonderful to not try these drives out in my production systems! And, even for the higher price (which, I expect will fall considerably as early as next year when production ramps up), I should see instant returns on investment by replacing my disk-drives that I launch VMware Virtual Machines from, drives that I have SQL-Server database on, and so on. My electric bill is certainly going to show some downward movement!

If you want more detailed information, I found a nice article at TG Daily - Intel SSD Discussion.

UPDATE:
Intel announced a $595 pricetag for the mainstream 80GB SSD, which comes in 1.8-inch (X18-M) or 2.5-inch (X25-M) sizes for the same price; the 160GB version is coming later this year (Q4), and pricing has not yet been announced.

For this price, I will definitely grab a couple and put them to use in my primary desktop and notebook to see how they perform. If they meet expectations, I'll soon thereafter upgrade my servers.

I saw that PC Connection has a web-page listing the SKU for the 80GB mainstream model (Intel X25M) for $731.35 (though, the Manufacturer Part Number (SKU) being shown is SSDSA2MH080G1C5, which is supposedly a 5-pack, is obviously incorrect). I expect other vendors to have pricing online soon, and to hit Intel's target pricetag (or perhaps undercut a bit for the large volume dealers, since Intel's pricing was for 1000 or less drives - which suggests a volume disount above 1000 drives). Heck, some data-centers easily have over 1000 drives, if not 10,000... perhaps they should buy direct from Intel :)

Friday, September 05, 2008

United States Unemployment Rate

Reuters just reported the August 2008 Unemployment Rate, and I couldn't help thinking that ECONOMISTS ARE IDIOTS as a whole! If you want more background on why I think so, see my prior blog posting on the Inflation rate, and how "I told you so".

Per Reuters today:
The US unemployment rate unexpectedly shot up to 6.1 percent in August, its highest in more than 4-1/2 years, as employers cut payrolls for an eighth straight month and labor markets showed signs of accelerating decline.
WHY is this "unexpected"?? morons! The only ones that seem to keep saying how great our economy is are the elected officials running the show currently (and perhaps the Republican follow-up show that is running for office right now too). Everyone else in America (aside from the very upper end of the income scale) can see first hand that inflation is rampant, housing prices are slumping, credit is tight, and people living rather near the "edge" of their means, which is all forcing spending to slow to include primarily the "essentials" (though, my view of essentials differs from most other peoples', as I exclude things like cell-phones, cable TV, and the like - those are choices people).

I see this first hand. I sell my Gluten-Free Recipes Book directly via the web, and I have seen a direct (inverse) correlation between gas prices and my book sales, which I discussed in another blog about Gluten-Free Cookbook Sales and Gasoline Prices (I wrote that on in September, 2007). It has only gotten worse as gas passed through $4.00 mark. The recent easing of gasoline prices helped stimulate sales a bit, but they are still lagging the pre-$3.00/gallon days considerably.

The fact is, people are TAPPED OUT! And when people stop spending and/or are forced to spend just on the basics (well, at least the American version of basics), that means that various product and service providers are losing their ability to sell things (like my book), which can lead to staff being reduced and unemployment increasing. Heck, just the massive housing decline alone should be enough for most idiot economists to see that there are going to be long-term and far-reaching implications for unemployment as the trickle-effect of products/services sales revolving around real-estate slow down.

I can't help thinking that perhaps the timing is perfect for all this. America needs to wake up to the fact that there is a fundamental problem with this economy. We are shipping insane amounts of our assets to energy-producing countries and foreign suppliers of cheap consumer goods. Where do you think that money ultimately goes? Sure, it may come back here in part, but not as reciprocal purchases of United States sourced goods and services for the most part -- instead it comes back by way of financing of our debt and as purchasing of our business assets and the like. We're selling everything that isn't nailed down in order to finance this insane need to fuel our vehicles at any cost, even as it is forcing us out of work by pushing all our much-needed capital out of American business and individuals' hands and into the pockets of foreigners that we will owe forever.

Wake up America! This is JUST THE BEGINNING, unless we make some substantial changes. Oh, and by the way, in addition to any personal debt you may have, do you want to know what your government, under this spend-crazy leadership, has obligated you and your family to?

The following is a quote right from the Treasury's own 2007 report:
Federal debt managed by the bureau totaled about $9 trillion at the end of fiscal year 2007. However, that number excludes many items, including the gap between scheduled and funded Social Security and Medicare benefits, veterans' health care, and a range of other commitments and contingencies that the federal government has pledged to support. If these items are factored in, the total burden in present value dollars is estimated to be about $53 trillion.3 Stated differently, the estimated current total burden for every American is nearly $175,000; and every day that burden becomes larger. Given the size of the projected imbalance, the U.S. government will not be able to grow its way out of this problem; tough choices will be required.
Notice, this is JUST the FEDERAL OBLIGATIONS... add on State, County, Local, etc. How much more obvious can it be - we CAN NOT and WILL NOT EVER be able to get out from under this national debt. There is absolutely no way that every man, woman, and child in this country can fork over $175K each - OBVIOUSLY. The relative "strength" of the USA, especially over the past couple decades, is nothing short of a mirage. It is smoke and mirrors folks. It was a series of "bubbles" (tech bubble, then real estate, and TONS of government spending throughout).

Our coffers are drained, and the signs are showing more and more. This doesn't mean immediate doom though, as our government has shown an incredible ability to keep the house-of-cards standing via ever-more debt... including the latest "stimulus checks" (which I posit were to BLAME for much of the inflation spike and gas-price spike - see that link for my predictions and outcome.) And, of course, more government officials are calling for further stimulus packages (which of course mean, just put it on the giant credit-card of the US government to hide the fact we are seriously hosed!).

I am perhaps a bit alarmist, but the fact is, something has to change. Unemployment increases should not be seen as a "surprise" or "unexpected" event in the least bit given the fact that our financial underpinnings are built on a foundation of quicksand. Get ready for more such "news" going forward, as the ripple-effect spreads. Don't confuse ripple with trickle (like the supposed "trickle down economics" that are supposed to save us through tax-cuts, and extended tax-cuts, to the upper income levels -- though, there is some relation between two, as this tax policy has helped lead us to this current state).