Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Interview with Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of Apax, at Oxford University (on Microsoft Teams).

UK's first venture capital fund, with $51 Billion in assets.


I was lucky to get an invite to this exclusive teams webinar from my dad, who attended Exeter College, Oxford University in the same year as Sir Ronald Cohen. After leaving Harvard Business School, Cohen worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company in the UK and Italy. In 1972, along with two former business school colleagues as partners, he founded Apax Partners, one of Britain's first venture capital firms. 

The company grew slowly at first, but expanded rapidly in the 1990s, becoming Britain's largest venture capital firm, and "one of three truly global venture capital firms". Apax provided startup capital for over 500 companies and provided money for many others, including AOL, Virgin Radio, Waterstone's, and PPL Therapeutics, the company that cloned Dolly the sheep. In 1996 Cohen helped establish Easdaq, a technology-focused stock exchange intended to be the European counterpart to the American NASDAQ,

My favourite part of the discussion was when Sir Ronald Cohen was talking about his career progression. Ronald said that Oxford was the more intellectually challenging of the two institutions he attended. He said that Harvard Business School was more 'like a trade school'. 

Sir Ronald made the world's most prestigious business school sound like a place you go to learn how to become an electrician or a plumber, not a Titan of industry, like him, Steve Schwartzman (below), founder of The Blackstone Group, or my old friend Bela Hatvany.

To be fair, Ronald said later that he wouldn't have achieved the success he did if he hadn't attended Harvard Business School. If you are 18 or 19 at Oxford, studying a subject like PPE, you would have had such a variety of intellectual stimulations. But getting an MBA is a much more focused endeavour. 

Below: Steve Schwartzman, CEO & Founder of The Blackstone Group, who set up scholarships with LSE, and Tsinghua University creating a Master's degree in Global Affairs in 2018.


This webinar suffered from the same malaise as the Steve Schwartzman of The Blackstone Group interview that my father and I attended at the LSE a few years ago. The interviewer may have been a lot older yesterday than the LSE student who interviewed the founder of Blackstone two years ago, but he was equally fawning and simply too deferential. 

There was one point when the interviewer made some comment about how 'incredibly illustrious and accomplished' Sir Ronnie was, that I thought the interviewer was going to fall on his knees. I don't know about you but I find that these types of talks are more entertaining when the interviewer throws in a few hardball questions along with the softball ones.

I must admit that I think these pieces with Millionaires and Billionaires talking about how awful inequality is, have been done to death. I would have loved to hear more about his career and the birth of the VC industry in the UK, which he described in his excellent book 'Second bounce of the ball'. 

I'm sceptical of how much millionaires and billionaires can do to alleviate inequality. This kind of philanthropy feels like ego massaging for wealthy people who've made it 'and want to give back', as the cliche goes. On a macro-level how effective will these initiatives be? But I'm still open-minded, and Sir Ronald did make some excellent points, worth considering, on how social investing can benefit society.

I don't want to be too critical about such an excellent talk; Sir Ronald Cohen did explain how the importance of responsible investing has grown as an idea; That investors are increasingly considering all aspects of the businesses they back - not just how much money it makes, but also how much the industry contributes to society. 

Is the company a significant polluter, like BP or Shell? Or does it have a vision for a greener future, like Tesla, which has seen its share price grow 265% this year? His points about how millennials and Generation Y and the new generations coming, care more about values. Many of them would not invest in or work for companies that have the values they hold.

Here's Sir Ronald Cohen's new book: Impact: Reshaping Capitalism to drive real change
and his previous one, which I enjoyed reading: The Second Bounce of the Ball

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Cyber Investment Webinar - Register now!

My Cyber Security portfolio is up 50% since March 2020! Yours could be too. You are invited!

Join my Cyber Investment Webinar 

Saturday, July 18th at 4pm UK time/11am EST/8am PST

You will be able to ask me questions on the market live on the webinar:

I will answer just the same as I do when I'm consulting with companies like Bain & Co.

  • Investment strategies
  • Analysing the financial picture, balance sheet and accounting of the company
  • The Big Picture - what's going on in the Economy right now at National, and Global level
  • Currency - why the value of all major currencies may fall right now
  • Other investment areas - Gold, Real Estate and traditional Blue Chip stocks - the pros & cons
  • The small picture - The Cyber Security Market - how it fits
  • If the economy crashes, why is Cyber an investment 'safe haven'
A very respected friend of mine, who is a big-time investor, advised me that I need to have a business purpose to this webinar. My business purpose is to share investment ideas so we can all make more money. 

I've set this Webinar to improve all of our investment strategies and to meet new people who are serious about investing. Are you serious about investing? Then join us!

Sign up now, here.

Bain & Company And QVARTZ Have Joined Forces To Provide ...

Saturday, June 06, 2020

10 Stock Picks in the Covid-19 Crisis


My first experience of investing in the stock market was terrible. Back when I was young and naive, I got a lump sum after my brother decided He wanted to sell a property we owned together. I did not know what to do with my half of the proceeds of that sale.

So, on the advice of an old family friend, who I trusted at the time and who was well versed in business and finance, I invested the money with a broker at a well-known Bank.

Unfortunately, the fund did poorly, and it lost most of the money. Besides, I had to go through an elaborate ritual (sending faxes, etc.) to extract my own money from this Bank. Not only was my broker charging a significant fee, but he was also arrogant and uncooperative whenever I asked him why he was losing my money. 

Has your fund manager lost most of your money?


I learnt one fact then that has stayed with me and now has been absolutely confirmed by one of my own investment gurus, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of 'Fooled by randomness' and 'Black swan' fame): Be wary trusting people's advice when they have no 'skin in the game'. 

It's easy giving people advice on other people's money. It's even easier managing someone's money when they don't have a lot. A bigwig might ruin your reputation. But if you lose a small-time investors money, 99 times out of a 100, you'll have zero repercussions. 

In the twenty years since that broker lost my money, I put myself through business school, took an internship at a US investment bank in New York City, graduated with an MBA in Finance and worked for several years as a financial analyst.

I trade stocks myself now with my own account. My portfolio is up 50% since the Pandemic, while the S&P is down 10%. The UK FTSE 100 is in even worse shape, down about 16% over the year. Most fund managers have lost money this last year. The UK property market is also underwater, maybe even by as much as 20%, no one knows the exact figures for that yet.

I have used my experience in Cyber Security to select some reasonably safe, but high returning Cyber stocks. I have invested in Gold as a hedge against currency devaluation due to massive government economic interventions.

Please also sign up for my Cyber Security Investments Webinar on Saturday, July 18th at 4pm UK/ 11am EST/ 8am PST talking specifically about my own investment strategies, mainly in the Cyber Security sector. 

This is not a 'snake oil' pitch. I am not claiming that my strategies are a foolproof way to make money. All I am saying is - here's what I'm investing my own money in and here's why I'm doing that, and up until now, it's been successful. 

This webinar is simply my attempt to stimulate a discussion on investments. Maybe, like me, you'll start making some good money from it. I'm keen to hear your views as well as your questions too. Perhaps I will learn more from you than you will learn from me?

Of course, you need to practice discretion and wisdom when investing your own money. You are the best judge of that decision. But why let some broker who doesn't value your money trade with it, especially when most fund managers can't even beat the S&P or FTSE 100 index? Why give them a fat commission for that? 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Five things to think of when you're moving country for work or study

MBA Class of 2008 dinner
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
(that's me second from left).



The first big move I made for my career was in 2005 when I made a decision to take two years out, to study for a full-time MBA in the USA. I hoped to work in the USA for a few years afterwards and get some good experience there.

If you gain a Master's degree in the US, you are allowed to work there for one year afterwards. Often foreign graduates are then 'sponsored' by their employer company to continue working in the USA with an H1B work visa.

I got a scholarship as well as a part-time job in the Marketing Department at Northeastern University - Office of Corporate Programs. So that also helped financially.

Returning from Boston to move back to London, 10 years later (2015), was a far bigger and more complicated affair. I was now married, with a 6-year-old son, with disabilities (ADHD and Dyspraxia) and a 9-year-old daughter.

My wife, Catherine, had always wanted to live in the UK. She was running College recruiting at her company, Akamai, in 2015, when she was offered the chance to go to London, to run EMEA recruiting there, managing a team of twenty-five recruiters.

I found a great job too, setting up Lead generation in the UK and Europe, for a little-known Cybersecurity start-up called Zscaler. It has since had an IPO and is now valued at fourteen billion US dollars on The NASDAQ

This brings me to my next point:

1Paperwork: Other than the usual challenges of getting an MBA; Taking The GMAT, making the applications, writing the application essays, interviewing for the schools, finding the money to go; I'd say getting the Visa sorted out was the hardest part.

It required me completing a lot of complicated paperwork. Further down the road, when I finally got my US Permanent resident card ('Green Card'), it was even harder. There were so many hoops to jump through that I eventually had to hire an Immigration lawyer at considerable expense to expedite it.

Equally important, though not as hard; after two years of living in the country, I had to pass my US driving license - many years after passing my British driving test.


Help, Where's my car? I need to get to work!



2The Weather; My second shock was rather more prosaic; I was just not prepared for the weather in Boston. In the winter, it gets down to -10 C. You also have big snowstorms.

For example, during the last winter, I was in Boston, in 2015, over 14 feet (4 meters) of snow fell in the city. In the summer, you need air conditioning in your apartment. It gets up to 40 degrees centigrade.

3Get help: Make sure you employ all the help you can. For this, we used a corporate relocation company to manage our move. Moreover, we used an army of staff, from childcare professionals to cleaners.

Corporate relocations have experienced a paradigm shift in the last fifty years. In the twentieth century, the husband usually worked, and the wife, who did not, would manage a lot of the move.

Today, more often than not, you are dealing with 2 parents, who both have to manage demanding jobs. Consequently, anything that will save you time is an absolute necessity.


My son, Jack, in our dining room in Boston, Massachusetts, USA 


4.  Make sure you employ technology to your advantage. We live in a digital world for a reason. It's fast and efficient. Everything from using DocuSign to sign all our documents (including the sale of our house in Boston) to Skype for all those international calls, to using video surveying tools to track where all our furniture was.

5. The importance of having flexible work. There is no way We would have managed this move so effectively without remote working.

I had two weeks training in Austen, Texas, and I travelled back to Europe several times to run conferences there. One time, just after the move, I had to go from England to a Sales kick-off in Las Vegas.

During this time, I was partially renovating and selling our house. We were unhappy with our real estate agent, so we had to switch agents mid-way.

Throughout this, Zscaler allowed me to work remotely for the UK office, from Boston, USA, for almost four months. Zscaler's and Akamai's flexibility made a big difference to Catherine and me.

Read my original post on buzzmove.com

Friday, April 10, 2020

Black Swans and the post-coronavirus Economy



"The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know."
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The phrase "black swan" derives from a Latin expression from the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal's characterization of something being "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno" ("a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan.").

When Juvenal wrote this, the black swan was presumed not to exist. The importance of the metaphor lies in its analogy to the fragility of any system of thought.  You can undo a set of conclusions once you can disprove any of its fundamental postulates. 

In 1697, Dutch explorers led by Willem de Vlamingh became the first Europeans to see black swans, in Western Australia. The term subsequently metamorphosed to connote the idea that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.

A few days ago, I was reading the Estate agents Knight Frank's Economic prediction about Coronavirus's impact on the housing market. Knight Frank confidently predict that ‘House sales in the UK will collapse this year as the coronavirus pandemic puts the property market into a deep freeze. But prices will fall by only 3% and will rebound next year.’

My immediate thought was, how can they be this certain? Plus, isn't it a bit like going to a casino and asking the croupier whether playing roulette is a good idea’.

I am as wise as Socrates in only one way, and that is 'that I know that I know nothing'. However, at this juncture, I trust the Economist Nassim Taleb more than I do a bunch of estate agents. Just to get their new evaluation in perspective, this is what Knight Frank predicted in December 2019.

In 2000 Nassim wrote that the problem with the financial markets was that they treated their data and models like it was science. But their financial models always miss vital information that means that their analysis will always lack scientific rigour. Nassim Taleb speculated how the markets would handle a random, entirely unpredictable event and less than a year later we had 9/11. 

Then in 2007 in his classic book Nassim Nicholas Taleb talked about how the financial system was vulnerable to black swan events:

“Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.” (extract from the book).

Initially, when he wrote 'Black Swan', he was booed off stage by eminent economists and ostracized by the financial community.
Then in 2008, the entire global financial system collapsed and had to be bailed out to the tune of thirteen trillion US dollars.

Nassim Taleb argued recently in the New Yorker that this current pandemic is not actually a black swan since to use Donald Rumsfeld's terminology this was a 'known unknown' not an 'unknown unknown'. Nevertheless, it's still a risk factor that was hard to predict and certainly, no mainstream analysts were predicting this pandemic or factoring it into their Financial modelling, prior to December 2019.

Therefore, I would be sceptical of any financial analyst writing with confidence about the future. His salary is paid by those who benefit from them putting one view across to us.

Wide-scale negative equity in the UK housing market?




*There is still a fundamental imbalance in the UK housing market, at least in the places where people want to live. The housing stock has always lagged behind growing demand, pushing up prices in the long term well beyond inflation. 

In the short term, a drop looks inevitable, as the lockdown, or lockdowns will hammer incomes and GDP when the cost of housing already claims a much larger share of disposable income than in the past.  

Where the price level will settle, and when it might pick up, is anyone's guess. The real pain will be felt by those going into negative equity, not able through reduced income to pay down the mortgage, and unable to sell without triggering bankruptcy.

This would also apply to heavily geared buy-to-let landlords, facing falling rental income but with fixed debt repayments. Those who have taken on mortgages at large multiples of income or landlords who have relied on substantial capital gains to protect against insolvency will, or ought to be, very worried at the moment.*

*acknowledgement to my father, Sir Kenneth Parker, retired High Court Judge, who is currently working for various government organisations, for this observation.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Can we be happier?


'Did you know the time in the week that the average British worker is most miserable? When He's meeting with his line manager!' As Professor Lord Layard said this, the entire audience erupted into knowing laughter. This is from his research from his latest book 'Can we be happier?'.

I attended a great lecture last night with Professor Lord Layard, who is the happiness expert at the LSE. He is a friend of a close friend of mine who sits in the House of Lords, Clive, who is active in UK Politics.

     Below: Dame Minouche Shafik and Professor Lord Layard 

          

Lord Layard started off by talking about the foundation of the LSE, by Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Fabians, who believed in the importance of improving society. William Beveridge, who set up the modern welfare state in the UK, was a Director of the LSE and also deeply concerned about the happiness of society.

Then Lord Layard talked about how society seemed to be getting less happy. This is confirmed by looking at life expectancy, which is now going down for the first time in recorded memory in the USA and to some extent in the UK. I believe that Coronavirus will accelerate this trend.

As society has become more selfish, individualistic and competitive, unfortunately, we have created a zero-sum game world. Every time I go up, someone else goes down. As someone else 'goes up', I go down. 

How can that philosophy of one-upmanship that many of us live with create happiness across society? Perhaps that's why, despite all our improvements in material circumstances, we, as a society, are more miserable than ever before.

Professor Lord Layard mentioned that the best way to determine an old persons life expectancy is not their doctor's 'physical' exam, but simply asking the patient 'are you happy?'. 

We put together a stimulating group for drinks and dinner after the event. This included a school teacher, Polly, and her husband, Ben, a software programmer. My old school-friend Lucas, who studied PPE at Oxford University.

Lucas was the smartest pupil at my school - he got the second-highest mark in his year studying Politics. Philosophy. Economics at Oxford and then took a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and is now a Professor of Philosophy at Bogazici University, in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Lucas brought along a close friend of his from Oxford University, Tara, who is a management consultant. I also invited Steve, who studied at Oxford, is a retired surgeon and professor of medicine. We had a wide-ranging discussion about happiness. Some of the topics we covered:

Tara and Clive agreed that people with religious faith seemed happier. That is one area that Lord Layard neglected to cover at all. I did notice that clergymen self-reported as the happiest profession (despite having salaries at the low end of the spectrum) in his latest book. However, we all agreed that it's pretty hard to measure happiness objectively. 

Steve said that he preferred this word eudaimonia —Aristotle's concept of flourishing—rather than happiness, which seemed to be more based on luck (Eutuxes) than living a good life.

Tara said that certain people' Eeyores' are always going to be miserable, and others' tiggers?' are usually going to be happy. Then, Lucas, Polly and Steve got into a discussion about how bad the education system had become in the UK.

They all agreed that the institutions' constant monitoring of performance was sucking the life out of any innovation. You can read more about this here - Moonshot thinking to unleash innovation.


Go to my website.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Five reasons why long-term productivity growth has flatlined in the UK .





One business issue that keeps resurfacing here in the UK is that of productivity. The big question is 'why has it flatlined here since 2008?' I noticed that, yet again, the Bank of England has predicted 0% productivity growth for this year in the UK.

I have much experience of living and working in other cultures. I am half Dutch and lived there for a time. I have also lived and worked in Colombia, Venezuela, India, Spain and most recently, in the USA from 2005-2015. Therefore, I would argue that I'm uniquely able to give a good explanation as to what's going on here.

Besides, I have worked as a contractor in the UK for the past two years. So I have quite a bit of experience job hunting in the UK. I have also bought and sold houses in both the US and the UK.

1. Business transactions take too long to carry out here in the UK. For example, when we bought and sold our house in Boston, it took less than a month. In the UK, it takes far longer.

2. Business people can't make decisions. When I was job hunting in the USA, generally it was a fast, efficient process. In the UK, often it is not.

I've noticed a troubling hiring trend here; Company A posts a job. Then many people are interviewed over many months and many stages, with the final result; Company A hires no one!  

This happens regularly in the UK. Imagine the damage to UK productivity of just this one issue alone on a country-wide scale?

3. Training and education. A lot of British businesspeople can't write accurate, grammatical English. They can't do basic maths. 

Lack of education has got to be a key reason for our poor productivity. We need better education - more executive coaching and business education, both online and traditional. 

And the general level of primary education needs to improve here. Spelling, grammar, maths, you name it. Some knowledge of foreign affairs, news and even a foreign language might be good too.

4. Investment has got to come a close second. If you want to be a productivity ninja, you do need the tools. I worked at one company as a contractor where I was managing a six-figure marketing budget, but the company gave me a faulty computer that crashed the entire time. 

Talk about an unproductive false Economy! All the evidence points to us not spending enough on equipment, from essential productivity apps to tools like DocuSign or Microsoft teams, to speed up business interactions. 

5. We in the UK have a fatal weakness for conventional wisdom. I'm paraphrasing Dominic Cummings here. But undoubtedly one of the reasons his Brexit campaign was able to defeat the much better funded and institutionally backed remain campaign was because his team was creative and unorthodox and the other side was neither.

I do agree with him that we need to encourage more of these counter-intuitive thinkers in the UK. Part of that is evolving from the 'culture fit' idea of recruiting which can kill innovation to the 'culture add' concept. Lack of innovation is one of the main causes of poor productivity in the UK.

And just so you don't get too downbeat about it all, the UK economy is actually growing faster than the rest of the European countries as you can see here.




Go to my website.