Wednesday, August 17, 2011

One Thing for Certain....

Uncertainty. It drives equity markets insane, causing them to swoop, surge, nose-dive and rumble upward, only to swoop and surge again. Investors can't figure out whether to ignore, reallocate, hold or sell. Speculators and high-frequency traders find ways to thrive, often spurring markets toward a  plunge and or meddling to make them bounce like ping-pong balls.

Such is the way it has been in this August of market turbulence. It has felt too much like autumn, 2008.

At financial institutions--especially at large banks, investment firms or trading houses--uncertainty in the marketplace leads to a degree of certainty in-house.  When markets bounce all over the place and when ongoing threats to a reviving economy slow it down, there are predictable, certain patterns within banks' walls. Examples?

1.  When markets turn downward or signal a downturn of any kind, even if momentary, financial institutions "circle the wagons." They assume worst-case scenarios in revenues, business, outlook, and opportunities. They hope for a prompt upturn, but plan for the worst.

They examine deals in the pipeline and business and transactions not yet closed. They go through business or balance-sheet "stress tests" to see how they can withstand a collapse in markets or business activity.

2.  Financial institutions begin to reassess, retrench and respond.  All of a sudden, with revenue declines looming, they look to cut costs. And personnel costs are the easiest and first to slice. With certainty, they reassess recruiting and hiring and lower projections for how many they plan to bring in over the next year.

3.  With the prospects of a diminished flow from deals, clients and new business, they huddle up to reassess bonus payouts. They outline cost-cutting and layoffs. Shortly thereafter, they communicate to employees, analysts, and media the cost-cutting campaigns that will come from lower bonuses and planned staff reduction. While investors applaud their efforts to retrench, employees and new recruits begin to worry.

Unfortunately this atmosphere of anxiety becomes a distraction from winning new business, planning new products or bringing in new clients. The managing director who normally flies off to Chicago to see a client is now forced into morning sessions to decide how much year-end bonuses should be scaled back and what group should be hit the hardest. The vice president who gathers a team to explore a new business strategy now wonders whether senior managers will have time to pay attention to the new idea.

4.  Often with uncertainty and volatile markets, banks get risk-averse. With the prospects of lower revenues, they don't want to worsen troubled times with bad investments, bad loans or bad business decisions. A deal, transaction, or investment that was smoothly approved in good times is shelved, pushed back or ignored in times of uncertainty.

Some institutions promised they would carry lessons from other crises, especially the lesson of being disadvantaged by acting too quickly or too rashly at the hint of a downturn. Does it make sense, they wonder, to retrench and retreat too swiftly, only to be forced to gear up, ramp up and rehire when business begins to flow again? Some retain the lessons; many others follow the familiar pattern of gear-up, retrench, lay off, rehire, expand and are comfortable with bearing the related administrative costs.

Experienced MBAs and professionals in finance know these patterns well and have learned how to adapt to them, even if they aren't comfortable going through them. New professionals and recent graduates learn fast that this is often the way of the world of volatility and instability.

Both the old and new understand the importance of concentrating on what they can control--working hard and performing at high levels. They also realize that underneath the piles of spreadsheets, projects, and presentations and in the midst of attending non-stop meetings on confronting the worst case, they must have a Plan B.

Tracy Williams

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