Competitive Intelligence

Tactical, Operational & Strategic Analysis of Markets, Competitors & Industries

Competitive Intelligence, Government Acquisitions, and a Hallucinogenic Future

With the bankruptcy of General Motors, our economy has finally hopped over the plane’s wing into the Twilight Zone. Not that this event was surprising to anybody with a cursory interest in money or cars - GM bet its future on the world’s endless thirst for bloated Hummers and Yukons and left quality and disruptive innovation to Asian rivals, all while locked into being America’s largest private provider of healthcare and pensions. You can get six Jack Welches, ten Peter Druckers and those guys who started Google on board and even they aren’t going to figure a way out of that hole. Like any death of a long-sick relative it is still a shock without truly being a surprise. You’ll feel the same way when American healthcare self-destructs and when Social Security cracks in half.

The reason to stockpile peyote and brown acid is not the demise of a for-profit company, which should be a prosaic activity in a capitalist system. You’ll need some strong hallucinogens to deal with how this bankruptcy was done, and what it means. The failure of GM I was expecting; a failure accompanied by an additional thirty to fifty billion of my tax dollars was the pimp slap. Not only is the original “Fortune One” company declaring the death of its business model, now my children and I get to be 60% owners of the company for the foreseeable future. It almost makes me long for the good old days of 2008 when we simply handed bankers hundreds of billions to pay off their bad investments without the need to get seats on the board to protect collective shareholder investments.

The walls began vibrating songs and the chairs began dancing a frenetic rumba when a psyche-shaking question occurred to me - How many freaking companies do I own as a taxpayer now? I am a proud owner of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a lovely deal for the 50/50 partnership in which government covers the “loss” part of the equation and private investors cover the “profits.” I get 80% of AIG, those masters of risk management who set the planet on fire by insuring every transaction on Earth from credit default swaps to Mexican cock fights. I have shored up most of the gargantuan banks on the planet through easy loans so big that our inevitable inflation will soon give Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine a hearty, nostalgic laugh. Now, my government has made me a majority shareholder in a automotive company that will need to atomize the oldest and most-established industrial infrastructure in the world before it could ever hope to compete with the supply chains of Korea, China, Japan and India - though not a word has been written to describe the difficulty of this transition.

As a taxpayer, behold the fantastic portfolio of my future prosperity! I will take this group of investments over any crap that Warren Buffet might cobble together! And that guy Soros will soon be proven to be no match for the investment genius of Obama, Geithner and Bernanke!

The drug trip has barely begun, my friends, and the buzz of bailout is now set to become a thrumming, pulsating multisensory experience as this new market moves ahead into the new physics of crony socialism. There’s no longer any need to believe in gravity, density, or inertia since this new universe is created by executive fiat and is subject to change at any moment. Just consider one question about the moral hazard created in this hallucinatory plane of existence: who is responsible for competitive intelligence for all of these companies that I own?

In order to compete effectively, every company must have a system of intelligence to understand market developments and competitors behavior. This practice varies in sophistication from sending guys to trade shows once in a while to learn stuff, on up to formal intelligence bureaus working in the service of products managers, strategists, and the CEO him/herself. In a modern economy evolving as quickly - and if recent events are any indication, chaotically - making decisions without the benefit of up-to-the-minute data and analysis about the business environment is a sure way to catastrophe. In the world we used to call reality, organizations had a discrete, impermeable layer that separates “us” from “them” and “internal” from “external,” allowing us to look critically at the external world. Intelligence thus permits leaders to understand the future marketplace and take action to insure profitability.

The U.S. Government not only is providing capital to a variety of American industries, it has invested me as an American taxpayer with a majority position in several cases. Moreover, the layer between “us” and “them” is now more permeable than wet Kleenex - since corporations are taxpayers too, Ford’s taxes will make them part owner in GM. Consumers too have multiple interests at stake - buy a new Ford Fusion, and you may watch your investment in GM decline. Buy insurance from a smaller carrier and you may deny AIG, of which you own 80%, of one of the only sources of profit they have to offset their days at the craps table of global finance.

Let’s not forget the government agencies themselves - they are now shaping the market through legislation and regulation, financing the industry through the Treasury’s policy of monitarization, AND acting in the market - ostensibly - to assure the return on the billions of dollars of taxpayer capital they just promised for the coming decades. This is where some peyote may help you squeegee your third eye clean and see into the kaleidoscopic mask of the Bizarro Future. Some major questions loom:

For America’s neo-mercantile companies, who collects the data in their search for competitive intelligence?
Who does the analysis? The company that led itself off the cliff, or the federal government bureaucrats who have zero understanding of individual market dynamics?

To whom do they report first? Cabinet secretaries or CEOs?

What kind of information is the most important? Rational, measurable data about the objective business environment, or subjective data about political personalities and their connections to top companies? After all, the new shape of the market seems to have more to do with who had Hank Paulson’s cell number in October of 2008 and who had dinner with Geithner while he was at the New York Fed than it does any macroeconomic trends or intellectual property analysis.

I take it back, leave the hard drugs alone. The coming reality will rival anything that distorted neuronal activity might bring. Remember, this is about the moral hazard of the future. It is with the addition of an automotive company to the national portfolio that we finally complicate American capitalism to an unimaginable degree, like trying solve calculus regressions with ten variables. In a business world created through executive order and maintained through fake federal money, all other players in the market - if they are paying attention - should view future market dynamics with the confusion reserved for a fever dream. It makes competitive intelligence extraordinarily necessary, and partially impossible.

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Comment by Eric Garland on June 14, 2009 at 4:50pm
...And as the USSR proved, it doesn't matter who OWNS anything or what they believe about history or humanity: it is a short-sighted or utopian understanding of the circulative operation itself which causes failure.

Man, what a statement on intelligence! It doesn't really matter who owns what; all that matters is their vision. Very cool, I'm stealing this idea.

I must tell you, I have shared this essay with a wide group of people. I live in DC, and know many government professionals. They think that we're hyperventilating here, that giant policy shifts are simply the way dinosaurs behave, and that business is just another group of dinosaurs. Business people however, think I'm not angry enough, as they know how weird things have gotten.

I now know two things: 1. We will need increasingly more sophisticated political analysis. 2. The old left-right, capitalist-communist terms will have very little significance.
Comment by Arik Johnson on June 10, 2009 at 6:48am
Almost forgot - for a view of one future scenario, check out your next car - the 2012 Pelosi GTxi SS/RT Sport Edition
Comment by Arik Johnson on June 10, 2009 at 6:45am
Fantastic critique of the Sovietization of American industrial policy Eric - I couldn't agree more! I read somewhere that whatever new crossover model GM or Chrysler introduces next should be called the "Bailout" but I'm starting to like the word "Soviet" better.

All joking aside, the compulsion to reorganize under bankruptcy any particular company rather than let the effects of the market dictate winners and losers will eventually come home to roost as the Darwinian effects of competition cull out those who have been unfairly subsidized.

The company I feel worst for now is Ford; they ran the race as routed, "fought the good fight" so to speak and are now about to be punished by having their own government decide to support one or another competitor over them. I own a Ford (and a Chevy for that matter, but have been a big Toyota fan as well) and intend to buy another for precisely this reason. The asymmetry of their management competence vis-a-vis GM and Chrysler dictates that those two domestic competitors will never have to come to terms with reality and will, eventually, fail.

To extend your psychedelia analogy, this is about to become a seriously bad trip.
Comment by Alan S. Michaels on June 9, 2009 at 11:56pm
Great article Eric.

Closely related to your comment/question, "How many freaking companies do I own as a taxpayer now?" is, How many [freaking] lines of business does USA Inc compete in? At eCompetitor.com, we count 175 and growing.

I agree with your comment that who you know in government may be more important than traditional CI information.

What I find most unfortunate is that there is so little discussion anywhere about how competitors are impacted when the government helps certain companies. Many people, for example, look back to the 80's when the government helped Chrysler survive through special loans. It was judged a success simply because the loan was paid back. But would not GM, Ford and possibly a new entrant been better off if Chrysler was not helped by the government? The same is true for every industry in which USA Inc now competes.

When USA Inc runs AIG, GM, Freddie Mac, Amtrak, a good chunk of Citi, soon healthcare related firms, etc.....it pulls down every industry it competes in because "excess capacity" is never corrected through supply and demand - and business process transformation becomes politically unnecessary.

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