The valuation crisis

Apropos the last posting on “earnings management”, do we now need a new term for “asset valuation management”?
See this story from last weeks’ New York Times – A Values Debate (Not the Political Kind) –

But on Thursday, at conference hosted by Standard & Poor’s in New York, several bankers complained that they have felt pressured by accountants and regulators to undervalue assets in recent months.
Accountants countered that the bankers, like any investor or homeowner, simply do not like seeing their investments drop.
“People were saying, ‘We’ve got to face up to the fact that we are selling things we don’t know how to value,’ ” said Rebecca T. McEnally, senior analyst at the CFA Institute, a nonprofit organization for investors.

I think Ms. McEnally is exactly right. But it does not extend solely to existing exotic financial instruments. There are a number of hard-to-value assets which are traded every day — many of which fall under the classification of “intangibles”. Since the markets for these assets are thin, it is difficult for outside parties to understand the valuation — which is created in a private negotiation between the buyers and sellers. What new need is a system for better transparency in these hard-to-value assets. And a greater understand and appreciation for their volatility. Any system created to deal with the current hard-to-value financial instruments needs to also understand these other assets — and can be used for a more general model of asset valuation, including for intangibles.

Earnings manangement – on the downward side

Stories about companies’ “earnings management” are well known. But here is a study about using earnings management in a different way — not to manage the perception of Wall Street but to manage the perception of Washington — Accounting Information as Political Currency — HBS Working Knowledge:

Such “downward earnings management,” as it is known in accounting, seems to have been motivated by the desire of contributing firms to not taint preferred candidates with association to the political red flag of 2004—outsourcing—as well as to ensure future benefits and avoid future costs in regulatory matters.

Is “earnings management” a part of reputation management? And should we classify it as an intangible capability?

Entrepreneurship as the next American frontier

An interesting essay by Michael Malone in today’s Wall Street Journal (The Next American Frontier):

The entire world seems to be heading toward points of inflection. The developing world is embarking on the digital age. The developed world is entering the Internet era. And the United States, once again at the vanguard, is on the verge of becoming the world’s first Entrepreneurial Nation.
At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper to the American Historical Association – the most famous ever by an American historian. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” he noted that, according to the most recent U.S. census, so much of the nation had been settled that there was no longer an identifiable western migration. The very notion of a “frontier” was obsolete.
For three centuries the frontier had defined us, tantalized us with the perpetual chance to “light out for the territories” and start our lives over. It was the foundation of those very American notions of “federalism” and “rugged individualism.” But Americans had crossed an invisible line in history, entering a new world with a new set of rules.<br
What Turner couldn't guess was that the unexplored prairie would become the uninvented new product, the unexploited new market and the untried new business plan.

Malone highlights a number of changes taking place in the I-Cubed Economy, such as more innovation, more technology, more start-ups and more networked production. Not sure all this adds up to an “entrepreneurial” nation. But it does, as we have argued in this blog, mean major shifts. As Malone says:

The economy will be much more volatile and much more competitive. In the continuous fervor to create new institutions, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain old ones. New political parties, new social groupings, thousands of new manias and movements and millions of new companies will pop up over the next few decades. Large corporations that don’t figure out how to combine permanence with perpetual change will be swept away.

But, that could be said for a number of eras in history – including the relatively short period of American history. Things change and things remain the same. It will be interesting to see what part of the “permanence” remains as part of this latest upheaval.

Reviving an intangible

The Sunday New York Times magazine had a great story on Can a Dead Brand Live Again? — about reviving old brands. The story focuses on the brand management company of River West Brands:

Marketers like to talk about something called brand “equity,” a combination of familiarity and positive associations that clearly has some sort of value, even if it’s impossible to measure in a convincing empirical way. Exploiting the equity of dead or dying brands — sometimes called ghost brands, orphan brands or zombie brands — is a topic many consumer-products firms, large and small, have wrestled with for years. River West’s approach is interesting for two reasons.
One is that for the most part the equity — the idea — is the only thing the company is interested in owning. River West acquires brands when the products themselves are dead, not merely ailing. Aside from Brim, the brands it acquired in the last few years include Underalls, Salon Selectives, Nuprin and the game maker Coleco, among others. “In most cases we’re dealing with a brand that only exists as intellectual property,” says Paul Earle, River West’s founder. “There’s no retail presence, no product, no distribution, no trucks, no plants. Nothing. All that exists is memory. We’re taking consumers’ memories and starting entire businesses.”
The other interesting thing is that when Earle talks about consumer memory, he is factoring in something curious: the faultiness of consumer memory. There is opportunity, he says, not just in what we remember but also in what we misremember.

The trick, of course, is to find the right partners to make the products in such a way as to tap into those memories. For example, reviving Nuprin as a heartburn drug probably wouldn’t work. But creating a slightly different set of Eagle snacks (another River West brand) that the original probably would. As the story notes:

One of Paul Earle’s professors at Kellogg was John F. Sherry Jr. (now at Notre Dame), who has devoted some study to “retromarketing” and “the revival of brand meaning.” In 2003 he wrote an article (with Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster and Robert V. Kozinets of Kellogg) on the subject for The Journal of Customer Behavior. “Retromarketing is not merely a matter of reviving dormant brands and foisting them on softhearted, dewy-eyed, nostalgia-stricken consumers,” they asserted. “It involves working with consumers to co-create an oasis of authenticity for tired and thirsty travelers through the desert of mass-produced marketing dreck.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but Sherry turned out to be more straightforward in conversation. “There’s no real reason that a brand needs to die,” he told me, unless it is attached to a product that “functionally doesn’t work.” That is, as long as a given product can change to meet contemporary performance standards, “your success is really dependent on how skillful you are in managing the brand’s story so that it resonates with meaning that consumers like.”

So brand and product are still inextricable tied together. Like many other (but not all) intangibles, the tangible is part and parcel of what makes up the I-Cubed Economy.

SEC to require XBRL

As this morning’s Wall Street Journal reports:

About 500 of the largest public companies in the U.S. would be required to “tag” data in financial reports starting this year, with smaller companies following over the next two years, under a proposal floated this week by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The proposal, which the SEC approved 3-0, calls for large public companies that use U.S. accounting to electronically tag financial data starting with reports covering periods that end on or after Dec. 15. The smallest companies and those that use international accounting would come under the SEC’s data-tagging requirement beginning in late 2010.
Data-tagging technology uses software called XBRL — which stands for “extensible business reporting language” — to code individual bits of information, such as revenue, making it easy to find and compare results across companies or time periods.

This is good news for those of us pushing for greater disclosure of information on intangible assets (admittedly a small step). XBRL can be used to tag both quantitative and qualitative information. So it creates a framework for easily identifying information – including information on intangibles.
Now the task is to make sure that intangibles are a routine part of that framework.
(For more on XBRL, see the recent report by the AICPA’s Assurance Services Executive Committee: The Shifting Paradigm in Business Reporting and Oversight.)

Patent bill update

Intellectual Property Watch has posted the following story – Bush Administration Presses On For Patent Reform Bill This Year:

Despite an apparent stalemate on patent reform in the United States Congress, the Bush administration is still pushing for a bill to be completed this congressional session.
Speaking in California’s Silicon Valley this week, US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez acknowledged that talks over S 1145, the Patent Reform Act, had broken down in the US Senate. At the centre of the disagreement is the debate over how patent holders should be compensated for infringement. Senators need to be up to the challenge of “mustering the will to forge a compromise and get it to the president’s desk,” he said.
“We can do better than this. I believe there is a way forward to pass legislation that improves our patent system – already the envy of the world – and addresses many of the concerns raised by patent holders and industries,” Gutierrez added. He made similar remarks in an editorial in The San Jose Mercury News Sunday.

The story goes on to describe many of the behind the scene activities around the bill — not a dead bill yet, but lots of work yet to be done in crafting a compromise. That is how the Senate works.

UK Innovation Nation

Once again, I think the British are showing how much they get it in the new I-Cubed Economy. In March, the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills published its new innovation strategy report: Innovation Nation.
The report starts out with a very clear statement: the nature of innovation has changed:

In the past, innovation was thought of as a simple process of investment in fundamental research leading to commercialisation by farsighted management in industry. This process has traditionally been supported by supply-side policy initiatives.
However, innovation draws on a wide variety of sources and is driven as much by demand as by supply. The insights generated by basic science are critical to long-term innovation performance but the path they follow from the laboratory to the marketplace is long, complex and uncertain.
Other sources of innovation include the creative application of tried-and-tested technologies and the role of design in developing innovative products and services. Innovation is also not restricted to the private sector – increasingly the public sector is called upon (often in partnership with the private and third sectors) to innovate in the design and delivery of public services.
Enabled and accelerated by new technologies, innovation is becoming more open. Organisations are increasingly reaching outside their walls to find ideas – to universities, other companies, suppliers and even competitors. Users are also increasingly innovating independently or in collaboration with businesses or in the co-creation of public services. Government policy needs to recognise these new sources of innovation and, in particular, develop new instruments that drive demand for innovation as well as its supply.

They refer to this as a demand-driven innovation policy. This is something that US policy has not yet come to grips with – although writing of folks like Chris Hill (Post-Scientific Society) are pushing in that direction.
The report then goes on layout action items in a number of areas. I will try to summarize what I thing are some of the key areas:
• Use government procurement and regulation to create demand to innovation – in both the public and private sectors.
• Direct support to business innovation efforts, such as vouchers for companies to work with universities and national labs and creation of technology demonstration platforms. But this also includes “examining whether there is a role for Government in helping small firms obtain investment through better reporting of their intangible assets” and training UK export and business support specialists in IP management.
• Increased government investment in S&T, but also “broaden knowledge exchange between the research base and businesses into the arts and humanities and service sectors such as the creative industries.”
• Creating an international strategy to make the UK an attractive innovation-based location.
• Stepped up efforts to increase workforce skills, including establishing “at least one National Skills Academy (NSA) in every major sector of the economy. … Government is working with Peter Jones to develop plans for a National Enterprise Academy and with James Dyson to launch the Dyson School for Design Innovation.”
• A program of public sector innovation
• Building a regional innovation strategy that acknowledges that every region can be innovative in its own ways:

In the UK, innovation performance varies considerably from place to place. It reflects sectoral specialisation and history. Traditionally, the UK’s innovation policy has been concentrated on high-tech manufacturing and this will remain vitally important. However, in the future, spatial innovation strategies must build on each region’s distinctiveness. Moreover, because of the internationalisation of knowledge production, many UK regions will increasingly depend not on the creation of knowledge but on its absorption from elsewhere.

In other words, they are developing a systemic approach to innovation. Shouldn’t the US do the same?

Copyright reform

Speaking of IP reform bills, a copyright bill is moving through Congress — the IP Pro Act (HR 4279). As the Washington Post reports (House Bill To Create Anti-Piracy Czar Advances), the bill is not without controversy. For one, the Justice Department objects to the creation of an IP czar in the White House:

“Establishing such an office would undermine the traditional independence of the Department of Justice in criminal enforcement matters,” department spokesman Peter Carr wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “Establishing such an office in [the White House] would codify precisely the type of political interference in the independent exercise of DOJ prosecutorial judgment that many members of Congress and senators have alleged over the last couple years.”

Not withstanding that objection, the House passed the bill last week by a vote of 410 – 11. In part, that is because many of the provision had been worked out. As the Post story (written before the final House vote) pointed out

Early opponents fought hard to tone down what they said were the draconian elements of the bill.
“We just generally didn’t like the whole tenor of, ‘Oh, my God, we need to cut off people’s toes’ if they commit copyright infringement,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a public-interest group that has advocated reducing some penalties for copyright violation. Sohn said her group is generally comfortable with the bill as approved yesterday but said Public Knowledge has its own six-point plan for revising copyright laws that it will seek to have introduced as legislation this summer.

That six point plan (Six Steps to Digital Copyright Sanity: Reforming a Pre-VCR Law for a YouTube World | Public Knowledge) covers:

1. Fair Use Reform. The existing four-part legal test for fair use should be expanded to add incidental, transformative and non-commercial personal uses of content. In addition, Congress should provide that making a digital copy of a work for indexing searches is not an infringement.
2. Limits on Secondary Liability. The 1984 Sony Betamax decision by the U.S. Supreme Court protecting a manufacturer of technology from liability as long as the technology has “substantial non-infringing use” should be codified.
3. Protections Against Copyright Abuse. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) should be expanded to deter copyright holders from filing frivolous requests that material be taken down from a web site. Congress should provide legal relief for legitimate users of a work should copyright owners overstate their rights.
4. Fair and Accessible Licensing. Congress should simplify the Byzantine world of obtaining rights to use a musical work, and should require broadcasters to pay performance royalties as satellite and Internet radio do.
5. Orphan Works Reform. Congress should limit damages for the use of works for which a copyright can not be found after a good-faith search. In addition, competitive visual registries should be established to protect visual artists and photographers.
6. Notice of Technological and Contractual Restrictions on Digital Media. Copyright holders should be required to provide clear and simple notice to consumers of any technological or contractual limitations on a consumer’s ability to make fair use or other lawful use of a product. There would be legal consequences if that notice isn’t followed.

So, we might see a busy fall with Congress going after both patent and copyright legislation. Or not. Stay tuned.

Patent bill update

Rumors circulate in the blogsphere about the fate of the Senate patent reform bill (S 1145). IAM Magazine declares the bill dead: A complete waste of time that has weakened the US patent-owning communities – Intellectual Asset Management:

It has looked dead for a month or so. And now it is. The Patent Reform Act has been officially withdrawn from the schedule of the US Senate and with that decision goes just about any chance it had of being enacted. Once it became clear that no deal was going to be reached over damages apportionment, the writing was on the wall for the proposed legislation When John Whelan, on secondment from the USPTO, packed up his things and left Senator Patrick Leahy’s office and Leahy’s chief counsel started to work on other things, the game was up.

Others have a different take: Patent Reform Act Stalls in the Senate | Electronic Frontier Foundation:

There’s no schedule for when the bill will return. Most sources are reporting that the bill is not dead, but it appears that the committee members will have to resolve their differences before patent reform is to continue.

According to Arstechnica: Patent Reform Act suffers serious setback, stalled in Senate:

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be revived at a future date, but the bill seems to have drawn some opposition at nearly every step of the way, so its passage will likely remain a challenge.

I think “challenge” is the right way to describe this. But having been around the Senate for some time, I can tell you that May is way too early to declare anything dead. Given the possible repeat of a budget deadlock, there is a possibility that this Congress could be in session for a long time. Then again, everything could get wrapped up quickly and everyone home by Columbus Day. You never know.
In any event, there is next year. And this is an issue that is not going away.

Reading and technology

Here is an interesting article on technology and reading — the cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review, by Ezra Klein — The Future of Reading. Speaking specifically about the portable e-reader Kindle, he states:

It’s not just that the technology is cool, however. The Kindle is credible. As a product of Amazon, it’s intertwined with the world’s largest online bookstore, legitimized by the one company that can lay some claim to having already changed the way we use, or at least acquire, books. The real question, though, is what took so long? Though Amazon has transformed the way we purchase content, its business model has always contained a crucial inefficiency: Amazon gives you unlimited, free, instant access to text about books, so long as you read it on your computer screen. Then, when you’re ready, they’ll also sell you some text, only it won’t be unlimited or instant. Instead, it will be printed on mashed-up tree, put in a box, and sent across the country to you. What’s in that box is simply more text, no different from what you read on your computer, save for the wasteful, inefficient, and costly method of production. For all that we rebel against the idea, examined rationally, the death of the book would be no surprise.
. . .
The Kindle is far less the start of a revolution than the codification of one. It’s a declaration of war long after most of the contested lands have been conquered.
. . .
content is king. It will seek out the vehicle best suited to its absorption or enjoyment. Sometimes, it will occupy multiple mediums at the same time, in order to appeal to the largest audience (think of how books live happily alongside audio books, and then are turned into movies). But the endless discussion as to whether books are dead tends to conflate “books” with “text,” and thereby obscures far more than it illuminates. Books will not die, after all, unless we want them dead. They have survived the advent of radio, television, the Internet, and Nintendo. Rather, they will be challenged once again, and books’ content will find new ways to express itself more effectively.
. . .
The point was driven home to me while reading William Powers’s brilliant essay “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal,” which considers the evolution of paper and the way it has subtly shaped not only the way we read, but what we read. “The persistence of paper flies in the face of a widely held popular assumption about technology,” Powers writes, “propagated over the years by breathless futurists and science-fiction writers.” True enough. But it was at about that moment that I realized I was reading “Why Paper Is Eternal” paperlessly, on my computer. I had downloaded it for free, which could be done because there were no shipping or production costs associated with the electronic file, and I decided to read it in my PDF viewer (the wonderful freeware Skim, for those who are interested) so I’d be better able to jot down thoughts and pull quotes. Paper may be eternal, but for some purposes, it’s simply inferior.
. . .
At the end of the day, the true advances won’t come in the Kindle, but in the content. Just as the capabilities of the device will shape what authors decide to do with it, so too will the decisions of authors shape the evolution of the device.

Fascinating! Too many arguments about technology fall into the trap of either technological determinism or an anti-technology rant. Klein has hit it right on with his analysis of the interaction. Just as papyrus (the scroll) replacing clay tablets and the book replacing the scroll changed how we read, the electronic form will also change how we read.
But will it change how we shop and how we decorate? The chaotic bookstore is still the place we can stumble into a new find. The large, well stocked library is still the outward sign of a certain status. Books have a visual character beyond their content. I would how that feature of our lives will change and adapt?