Tag Archives: Columns

Performance Appraisal — Who Needs It?

We go through this ordeal every year when our bosses appraise our performance. Our career progression, bonus and salary depend on it. So we spend sleepless nights agonizing over it.

In addition to the appraisal, we also get our “key performance indicators” or KPIs for next year. These are the commandments we have to live by for the rest of the year. The whole experience of it is so unpleasant that we say to ourselves that life as an employee sucks.

The bosses fare hardly better though. They have to worry about their own appraisals by bigger bosses. On top of that, they have to craft the KPI commandments for us as well — a job pretty darned difficult to delegate. In all likelihood, they say to themselves that their life as a boss sucks!

Given that nobody is thrilled about the performance appraisal exercise, why do we do it? Who needs it?

The objective behind performance appraisal is noble. It strives to reward good performance and punish poor shows — the old carrot and stick management paradigm. This objective is easily met in a small organization without the need for a formal appraisal process. Small business owners know who to keep and who to sack. But in a big corporate body with thousands of employees, how do you design a fair and consistent compensation scheme?

The solution, of course, is to pay a tidy sum to consultants who design appraisal forms and define a uniform process — too uniform, perhaps. Such verbose forms and inflexible processes come with inherent problems. One problem is that the focus shifts from the original objective (carrot and stick) to fairness and consistency (one-size-fits-all). Mind you, most bosses know who to reward and who to admonish. But the HR department wants the bosses to follow a uniform process, thereby increasing everybody’s workload.

Another, more insidious problem with this consultancy driven approach is that it is necessarily geared towards mediocrity. When you design an appraisal process to cater to everybody, the best you can hope to achieve is to improve the average performance level by a bit. Following such a process, the CERN scientist who invented the World Wide Web would have fared badly, for he did not concentrate on his KPIs and wasted all his time thinking about file transfers!

CERN is a place that consistently produces Nobel laureates. (I once found myself with two Nobel laureates in a CERN elevator!) How does it do it? Certainly not by following processes that are designed to make incremental improvements at the average level. The trick is to be a center for excellence which attracts geniuses.

Of course, it is not fair to compare an average organization with CERN. But we have to realize that the verbose forms, which focus on averages and promote mediocrity, are a poor tool for innovation management.

A viable alternative to standardized and regimented appraisal processes is to align employee objectives with those of the organization and leave performance and reward management to bosses. With some luck, this approach may retain fringe geniuses and promote innovation. At the very least, it will alleviate some employee anxiety and sleepless nights.

Handling Goodbyes

Hold on to your pants, your key staff has just tendered his resignation — your worst nightmare as a manager! Once the dust settles and the panic subsides, you begin to ask yourself, what next?

Staff retention is a major problem in the current job market in Singapore. Our economy is doing well; our job market is red hot. As a result, new job offers are becoming increasingly more irresistible. At some stage, someone you work closely with — be it your staff, your boss or a fellow team member — is going to hand in that dreaded letter to HR. Handling resignations with tact and grace is no longer merely a desirable quality, but an essential corporate skill today.

We do have some general strategies to deal with resignations. The first step is to assess the motivation behind the career choice. Is it money? If so, a counter offer is usually successful. Counter offers (both making them and taking them) are considered ineffective and in poor taste. At least, executive search firms insist that they are. But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

If the motivation behind the resignation is the nature of the current or future job and its challenges, a lateral movement or reassignment (possibly combined with a counter offer) can be effective. If everything fails, then it is time to say goodbye — amicably.

It is vitally important to maintain this amicability — a fact often lost on bosses and HR departments. Understandably so because, by the time the counter offer negotiations fail, there is enough rancor on both sides to sour the relationship. Brush those wounded feelings aside and smile through your pain, for your paths may cross again. You may rehire the same person. Or, you may end up working with him/her on the other side. Salvage whatever little you can for the sake of positive networking.

The level of amicability depends on corporate culture. Some organizations are so cordial with deserting employees that they almost encourage desertion. Others treat the traitors as the army used to — with the help of a firing squad.

Both these extremes come with their associated perils. If you are too cordial, your employees may treat your organization as a stepping stone, concentrating on acquiring only transferable skills. On the other extreme, if you develop a reputation for severe exit barriers in an attempt to discourage potential traitors, you may also find it hard to recruit top talent.

The right approach lies somewhere in between, like most good things in life. It is a cultural choice that an organization has to make. But regardless of where the balance is found, resignation is here to stay, and people will change jobs. Change, as the much overused cliche puts it, is the only constant.

Money — Love it or Hate it

Whatever its raison-d’etre may be, there is a need for more, and an unquenchable greed. And paradoxically, if you want to try to quench a bit of your greed, the best way to do it is to fan the greed in others. This is why the email scams (you know, the Nigerian banker requesting your help in moving $25 million of unclaimed inheritance, or the Spanish lottery eager to give you 67 million Euros) still hold a fascination for us, even when we know that we will never fall for it.

There is only a thin blurry line between the schemes that thrive on other people’s greed and confidence jobs. If you can come up with a scheme that makes money for others, and stay legal (if not moral), then you will make yourself very rich. We see it most directly in the finance and investment industry, but it is much more widespread than that. We can see that even education, traditionally considered a higher pursuit, is indeed an investment against future earnings. Viewed in that light, you will understand the correlation between the tuition fees at various schools and the salaries their graduates command.

When I started writing this column, I thought I was making up this new field called the Philosophy of Money (which, hopefully, somebody would name after me), but then I read up something on the philosophy of mind by John Searle. It turned out that there was nothing patentable in this idea, nor any cash to be made, sadly. Money comes under the umbrella of objective social realities that are quite unreal. In his exposition of the construction of social reality, Searle points out that when they give us a piece of paper and say that it is legal tender, they are actually constructing money by that statement. It is not a statement about its attribute or characteristics (like “This is a glass of water”) so much as a statement of intentionality that makes something what it is (like “You are my hero”). The difference between my being a hero (perhaps only to my six-year-old) and money being money is that the latter is socially accepted, and it is as objective a reality as any.

I conclude this article with the nagging suspicion that I may not have argued my point well enough. I started it with the premise that money is an unreal meta-thing, and wound up asserting its objective reality. This ambivalence of mine may be a reflection of our collective love-hate relationship with money – perhaps not such a bad way to end this column after all.

Photo by 401(K) 2013

Money — Why do We Crave it?

Given that the investment value is also measured and returned in terms of money, we get the notion of compound interest and “putting money to work.” Those who have money demand returns based on the investment risk they are willing to assume. And the role of modern financial system becomes one of balancing this risk-reward equation. Finance professionals focus on the investment value of money to make oodles of it. It not so much that they take your money as deposits, lend it out as loans, and earn the spread. Those simple times are gone for good. The banks make use of the fact that investors demand the highest possible return for the lowest possible risk. Any opportunity to push this risk-reward envelope is a profit potential. When they make money for you, they demand their compensation and you are happy to pay it.

Put it that way, investment sounds like a positive concept, which it is, in our current mode of thinking. We can easily make it a negative thing by portraying the demand for the investment value of money as greed. It then follows that all of us are greedy, and that it is our greed that fuels the insane compensation packages of top-level executives. Greed also fuels fraud – ponzi and pyramid schemes.

Indeed, any kind of strong feeling that you have can be bought and sold for personal gain of others. It may be your genuine sympathy for the Tsunami or earthquake victims, your voyeuristic disgust at the peccadilloes of golf icons or presidents, charitable feeling toward kidney patients of whatever. And the way money is made out of your feelings may not be obvious at all. Watching the news five minutes longer than usual because of a natural disaster may bring extra fortune to the network’s coffers. But of all the human frailties one can make money out of, the easiest is greed, I think. Well, I may be wrong; it may actually be that frailty that engendered the oldest profession. But I would think that the profession based on the lucrative frailty of greed wasn’t all that far behind.

If we want to exploit other people’s greed, the first thing to ask ourselves is this: why do we want money, given that it is a meta-entity? I know, we all need money to live. But I am not talking about the need part. Assuming the need part is taken care of, we still want more of it. Why? Say you are a billionaire. Why would you want another billion? I think the answer lies in something philosophical, something of an existential angst, although those with their billions would the last ones to admit it. The reason behind this deep-rooted need for more is a quest for a validation, or a justification for our existence, and a meaning and purpose for our life. It is all part of that metaphorical holy grail. I know, it sounds a bit nutty, but what else could it be? The Des Cartes of our time would say, “I have loads of money, therefore I am!”

The Ultra Rich

Let’s first take a look at how people make money. Loads of it. Apparently, it is one of the most frequently searched phrases in Google, and the results usually attempt to separate you from your cash rather than help you make more of it.

To be fair, this column won’t give you any get-rich-quick, sure-fire schemes or strategies. What it will tell you is why and how some people make money, and hopefully uncover some new insights. You may be able to put some of these insights to work and make yourself rich – if that’s where you think your happiness lies.

By now, it is clear to most people that they cannot become filthy rich by working for somebody else. In fact, that statement is not quite accurate. CEOs and top executives all work for the shareholders of the companies that employ them, but are filthy rich. At least, some of them are. But, in general, it is true that you cannot make serious money working in a company, statistically speaking.

Working for yourself – if you are very lucky and extremely talented – you may make a bundle. When we hear the word “rich,” the people that come to mind tend to be

  1. entrepreneurs/industrialists/software moguls – like Bill Gates, Richard Branson etc.,
  2. celebrities – actors, writers etc.,
  3. investment professionals – Warren Buffet, for instance, and
  4. fraudsters of the Madoff school.

There is a common thread that runs across all these categories of rich people, and the endeavors that make them their money. It is the notion of scalability. To understand it well, let’s look at why there is a limit to how much money you can make as a professional. Let’s say you are a very successful, highly-skilled professional – say a brain surgeon. You charge $10k a surgery, of which you perform one a day. So you make about $2.5 million a year. Serious money, no doubt. How do you scale it up though? By working twice as long and charging more, may be you can make $5 million or $10 million. But there is a limit you won’t be able to go beyond.

The limit comes about because the fundamental economic transaction involves selling your time. Although your time may be highly-skilled and expensive, you have only 24 hours of it in a day to sell. That is your limit.

Now take the example of, say, John Grisham. He spends his time researching and writing his best-selling books. In that sense, he sells his time as well. But the big difference is that he sells it to many people. And the number of people he sells his product to may have an exponential dependence on its quality and, therefore, the time he spends on it.

We can see a similar pattern in software products like Windows XP, performances by artists, sports events, movies and so on. One performance or accomplishment is sold countless times. With a slight stretch of imagination, we can say that entrepreneurs are also selling their time (that they spend setting up their businesses) multiple times (to customers, clients, passengers etc.) All these money-spinners work hard to develop some kind of exponential volume-dependence on the quality of their products or the time they spend on them. This is the only way to address the scalability issue that comes about due to the paucity of time.

Investment professionals (bankers) do it too. They develop new products and ideas that they can sell to the masses. In addition, they make use of a different aspect of money that we touched upon in an earlier column. You see, money has a transactional value. It plays the role of a medium facilitating economic exchanges. In financial transactions, however, money becomes the entity that is being transacted. Financial systems essentially move money from savings and transforms it into capital. Thus money takes on an investment value, in addition to its intrinsic transactional value. This investment value is the basis of interest.

Philosophy of Money

Money is a strange thing. It is quite unlike any other “thing” that we know. Its value manifests itself only in a social context where we have pre-agreed conventions as to what it should be. In this sense, money is not a thing at all, but a meta-thing, which is why you are happy when your boss gives you a letter stating that you got a fat bonus even though you never actually see the physical thing. Well, if it is not physical, it is metaphysical, and we can certainly talk about the philosophy of money.

The first indication of the meta-ness of money comes from the fact that it has a value only when we assign it a value. It doesn’t possess an intrinsic value that, for instance, water does. If you are thirsty, you find that water has enormous intrinsic value. Of course, if you have money, you can buy water (or Perrier, if you want to be sophisticated), and quench your thirst.

But we may find ourselves in situations where we may not be able to buy things with money. Stranded in a desert, for instance, dying of thirst, we may not be able to buy water despite our sky-high credit limits or the hundreds of dollars we may have in our wallet. One reason for this inability of ours is obvious – we may be alone. The basic transactional value of money evaporates when we have nobody to transact with.

The second dimension of the meta-ness of money is economical. It is illustrated in the well-worn supply-and-demand principle, assuming transactional liquidity (which is a term I just cooked up to sound erudite, I confess). I mean to say, even if we have willing sellers of water in the desert, they may see that we are dying for it and jack up the price – just because we are willing and able to pay. This apparent ripping off on the part of the devious vendors of water (perfectly legal, by the way) is possible only if the commodity in question is in plentiful supply. We need commodity liquidity, as it were.

It is when the liquidity dries up that the fun begins. The last drop of water in a desert has infinite intrinsic value. This effect may look similar to the afore-mentioned supply-and-demand phenomenon, but it really is different. The intrinsic value dominates everything else, much like the strong force over short distances in particle physics. And this domination is the flipside of the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics.

The thing that looks a bit bizarre about money is that it seems to run counter to the law of diminishing marginal utility. The more money you have, the more you want it. Now, why is that? It is especially strange given its lack of intrinsic value. Great financial minds could not figure it out, but came up with pithy and memorable statements like, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Although that particular genius was only fictional, he does epitomize much of the thinking in the modern corporate and financial world. Good or bad, let’s assume that greed is an essential part of human nature and look at what we can do with it. Note that I want to do something “with” it, not “about” it – an important distinction. I, intrepid columnist that I am, want to show you how to use other people’s greed to make more money.

Photo by 401(K) 2013

Modeling the Models

Mathematical finance is built on a couple of assumptions. The most fundamental of them is the one on market efficiency. It states that the market prices every asset fairly, and the prices contain all the information available in the market. In other words, you cannot glean any more information by doing any research or technical analysis, or indeed any modeling. If this assumption doesn’t pan out, then the quant edifice we build on top of it will crumble. Some may even say that it did crumble in 2008.

We know that this assumption is not quite right. If it was, there wouldn’t be any transient arbitrage opportunities. But even at a more fundamental level, the assumption has shaky justification. The reason that the market is efficient is that the practitioners take advantage of every little arbitrage opportunity. In other words, the markets are efficient because they are not so efficient at some transient level.

Mark Joshi, in his well-respected book, “The Concepts and Practice of Mathematical Finance,” points out that Warren Buffet made a bundle of money by refusing to accept the assumption of market efficiency. In fact, the weak form of market efficiency comes about because there are thousands of Buffet wannabes who keep their eyes glued to the ticker tapes, waiting for that elusive mispricing to show up.

Given that the quant careers, and literally trillions of dollars, are built on the strength of this assumption, we have to ask this fundamental question. Is it wise to trust this assumption? Are there limits to it?

Let’s take an analogy from physics. I have this glass of water on my desk now. Still water, in the absence of any turbulence, has a flat surface. We all know why – gravity and surface tension and all that. But we also know that the molecules in water are in random motion, in accordance with the same Brownian process that we readily adopted in our quant world. One possible random configuration is that half the molecules move, say, to the left, and the other half to the right (so that the net momentum is zero).

If that happens, the glass on my desk will break and it will make a terrible mess. But we haven’t heard of such spontaneous messes (from someone other than our kids, that is.)

The question then is, can we accept the assumption on the predictability of the surface of water although we know that the underlying motion is irregular and random? (I am trying to make a rather contrived analogy to the assumption on market efficiency despite the transient irregularities.) The answer is a definite yes. Of course, we take the flatness of liquid surfaces for granted in everything from the useless lift-pumps and siphons of our grade school physics books all the way to dams and hydro-electric projects.

So what am I quibbling about? Why do I harp on the possibility of uncertain foundations? I have two reasons. One is the question of scale. In our example of surface flatness vs. random motion, we looked at a very large collection, where, through the central limit theorem and statistical mechanics, we expect nothing but regular behavior. If I was studying, for instance, how an individual virus propagates through the blood stream, I shouldn’t make any assumptions on the regularity in the behavior of water molecules. This matter of scale applies to quantitative finance as well. Are we operating at the right scale to ignore the shakiness of the market efficiency assumption?

The second reason for mistrusting the pricing models is a far more insidious one. Let me see if I can present it rather dramatically using my example of the tumbler of water. Suppose we make a model for the flatness of the water surface, and the tiny ripples on it as perturbations or something. Then we proceed to use this model to extract tiny amounts of energy from the ripples.

The fact that we are using the model impacts the flatness or the nature of the ripples, affecting the underlying assumptions of the model. Now, imagine that a large number of people are using the same model to extract as much energy as they can from this glass of water. My hunch is that it will create large scale oscillations, perhaps generating configurations that do indeed break the glass and make a mess. Discounting the fact that this hunch has its root more in the financial mess that spontaneously materialized rather than any solid physics argument, we can still see that large fluctuations do indeed seem to increase the energy that can be extracted. Similarly, large fluctuations (and the black swans) may indeed be a side effect of modeling.

Group Dynamics

When researchers and academicians move to quantitative finance, they have to grapple with some culture shock. Not only does the field of finance operate at a faster pace, it also puts great emphasis on team work. It cuts wide rather than deep. Quick results that have immediate and widespread impact are better than perfect and elegant solutions that may take time to forge. We want it done quick rather than right. Academicians are just the opposite. They want to take years to mull over deep problems, often single-handedly, and come up with solutions elegant and perfect.

Coupled with this perfectionism, there is a curious tendency among academic researchers toward creating a “wow” factor with their results, as opposed to finance professionals who are quite content with the “wow” factor in their bonuses. This subtle mismatch generates interesting manifestations. Academics who make the mid-career switch to finance tend to work either alone or in small groups, trying to perfect an impressive prototype. Banking professionals, on the other hand, try to leverage on each other (at times taking credit for other people’s work) and roll out potentially incomplete solutions as early as possible. The intellectual need for a “wow” may be a factor holding back at least some quant deliverables.

Philosophy of Money

Underlying all financial activity are transactions involving money. The term “transactions” means something philosophically different in economics. It stands for exchanges of goods and services. Money, in economic transactions, has only a transactional value. It plays the role of a medium facilitating the exchanges. In financial transactions, however, money becomes the entity that is being transacted. Financial systems essentially move money from savings and transforms it into capital. Thus money takes on an investment value, in addition to its intrinsic transactional value. This investment value is the basis of interest.

Given that the investment value is also measured and returned in terms of money, we get the notion of compound interest and “putting money to work.” Those who have money demand returns based on the investment risk they are willing to assume. And the role of modern financial system becomes one of balancing this risk-reward equation.

We should keep in mind that this signification of money as investment entity is indeed a philosophical choice that we have made over the past few centuries. Other choices do exist — Islamic banking springs to mind, although its practice has be diluted by the more widely held view of money as possessing an investment value. It is fascinating to study the history and philosophy of money, but it is a topic that calls for a full-length book on its own right. Understanding money at its most fundamental level may in fact enhance our productivity — which is again measured in terms of the bottom line, consistent with the philosophy of money that enjoys currency.

Slippery Slopes

But, this dictum of denying bonus to the whole firm during bad times doesn’t work quite right either, for a variety of interesting reasons. First, let’s look at the case of the AIG EVP. AIG is a big firm, with business units that operate independently of each other, almost like distinct financial institutions. If I argued that AIG guys should get no bonus because the firm performed abysmally, one could point out that the financial markets as a whole did badly as well. Does it mean that no staff in any of the banks should make any bonus even if their particular bank did okay? And why stop there? The whole economy is doing badly. So, should we even out all performance incentives? Once we start going down that road, we end up on a slippery slope toward socialism. And we all know that that idea didn’t pan out so well.

Another point about the current bonus scheme is that it already conceals in it the same time segmentation that I ridiculed in my earlier post. True, the time segmentation is by the year, rather than by the month. If a trader or an executive does well in one year, he reaps the rewards as huge bonus. If he messes up the next year, sure, he doesn’t get any bonus, but he still has his basic salary till the time he is let go. It is like a free call option implied in all high-flying banking jobs.

Such free call options exist in all our time-segmented views of life. If you are a fraudulent, Ponzi-scheme billionaire, all you have to do is to escape detection till you die. The bane of capitalism is that fraud is a sin only when discovered, and until then, you enjoy a rich life. This time element paves the way for another slippery slope towards fraud and corruption. Again, it is something like a call option with unlimited upside and a downside that is somehow floored, both in duration and intensity.

There must be a happy equilibrium between these two slippery slopes — one toward dysfunctional socialism, and the other toward cannibalistic corruption. It looks to me like the whole financial system was precariously perched on a meta-stable equilibrium between these two. It just slipped on to one of the slopes last year, and we are all trying to rope it back on to the perching point. In my romantic fancy, I imagine a happier and more stable equilibrium existed thirty or forty years ago. Was it in the opposing economic ideals of the cold war? Or was it in the welfare state concepts of Europe, where governments firmly controlled the commanding heights of their economies? If so, can we expect China (or India, or Latin America) to bring about a much needed counterweight?