For $234m JP Morgan has bought a bank, Bear Stearns, that was worth $20 billion last year. Either they have got the bargain of the century or Bear Stearns has the equivalent of a football team’s worth of rogue traders. It is more likely they have bought this on the cheap, given the support the Fed has also agreed to give, making it a great symbol of how the banking sector is capable of making money even when times are hard.
What I find striking about this deal is that it reminds us how the banking business is built on confidence and how easily that confidence can be destroyed. I’m sure there are some real problems with the Bear Stearns business but I’m also sure there are many assets (not least their real estate in NY) that are worth considerably more than the $2 a share JP Morgan is paying. I’m pretty sure the brains at JP Morgan will be able to clean up the Bear Stearns business, which then only leaves them with a confidence challenge. That is a classic PR challenge that in this instance is going to run right across their sector. It will be fascinating to see how they respond to this in the short term. As a sector they tend to be fierce competitors but if they want to maintain the confidence they need right now they are going to have to work well together and show the world they can weather this storm. It’s classic crisis management stuff but for an industry as a whole not just Bear Stearns who at this point are the victim.
As news about a weak US economy continues to get posted, you can expect businesses to hide poor performance behind this economic curtain. In truth not all businesses that do poorly are suffering from a bad economy. Many are simply suffering from poor management and poor products. Of course if you dominate a market with huge market share then you will feel the effects of a shrinking market more than most in all likelihood. But most companies don’t dominate. Most companies have a tiny share of the market. So even if the market is shrinking they could still grow by taking market share away from a competitor. To do that they will of course have to run a better company than the competitor. That may not be easy, especially in an uncertain economy but it’s not impossible. So next time you hear a CEO blame the economic climate for worse than expected results you should ask yourself whether it really was the economy or was it that they made some bad calls?
In sports, averages and ratings are calculated for everything. Baseball is full of players stats such as RBIs and ERAs. In (American) football, quarterbacks have YPAs and in basketball there are stats on free throws and rebounds to name but a few. I was wondering today whether you could also create stats for business leaders. For example how many of the products Steve Jobs has unveiled in the last few years have gone on to be hits? Put another way, what’s his Hits Per Announcement, or HPA, average? If such a score could be calculated it would probably show that Apple’s CEO is scoring well. The logical conclusion being that he must be taking performance enhancing drugs and will likely face a grand jury some time in the next year or two, once they’ve finished with Barry Bonds.
Last week WPP‘s CEO talked about the ‘real economy’ and how it’s actually holding up quite well. The same day, IPG also put out some positive statements following good results. Indeed if you look at the business news in recent weeks there have been a string of relatively positive statements made, albeit with some caveats attached. The only sectors that have continued to spew out bad news have been banking, housing and the some parts of the auto industry. Even retail has seemed pretty robust which lead a Forbes columnist to pick Target as a stock worth buying now that its PE has dropped to around 16. All this suggests that there are two economies playing out right now. Unfortunately only one of them seems to be getting any attention. The ‘real economy’ as Sir Martin called it seems to get a passing mention, whereas the the mean, ugly one that the banks are wrapped up in seems to get a mountain of coverage. It sounds to me like the real economy needs some marketing support.