Nikola Tesla, Sheldon Cooper, Inventors & Entrepreneurs, Compromise & Tradeoff, Theoretical & the Practical, GM and Hostess

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 4th, 2012

History 101

Geniuses strive for Theoretical Perfection which often doesn’t work in the Market Place

There have been a lot of brilliant inventors that gave the world incredible things.  Nikola Tesla gave us the modern world thanks to his work in electromagnetic fields.  Giving us the AC power we take for granted today.  Electric motors.  The wireless radio.  Etc.  But as brilliant as Tesla was he was not brilliant in making money from his inventions.  He died broke and in debt.  And, some say, insane.  Though he was probably more like Sheldon Cooper on The Big bang Theory.  As one character on the show called him, “The skinny weirdo.”  Tesla had an eidetic memory (often called a photographic memory).  And probably suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  Which when added to genius can be mistaken for crazy genius.

So Tesla and the fictional Sheldon Cooper have some things in common.  Genius.  And some odd behavioral traits.  As well as something else.  Neither was rich.  Their genius did not make them rich.  Which is a common trait of all brilliant inventors.  Their genius gets in the way of practicality.  They strive for theoretical perfection.  Which often doesn’t work in the market place.  Because perfection is costly.  And this is what separates the theoretical geniuses from practical engineers.  And entrepreneurs.

The internal combustion engine is a technological marvel.  It has changed the world.  Modernized the world.  It gave us inexpensive modes of transportation like cars, trucks, ships, trains and airplanes.  But the engine is not theoretically perfect.  It is a study of compromise and tradeoff.  Providing a final product that isn’t perfect.  But one that is economically viable.  For example, pistons need to compress an air-fuel mixture for combustion.  However, the piston can’t make such a tight seal that it can’t move up and down in the cylinder.  So the piston is smaller than the cylinder opening.  This allows it to move.  But it doesn’t contain the air-fuel mixture for compression and combustion.  So they add a piston ring.  Which contains the air-fuel mixture but restricts the movement of the piston.  So they add another piston ring that takes oil that splashes up from crank case and passes it through the ring to the cylinder wall.  The heat of combustion, though, can leave deposits from the oil on the cylinder wall.  So they add another piston ring to scrape the cylinder wall.

Selling a ‘Low Price’ is a Dangerous Game to Play Especially if you don’t Know your Costs

Every part of the internal combustion engine is a compromise and tradeoff.  Each part by itself is not the best it can be.  But the assembled whole is.  A theoretical genius may look at the assembled whole and want to add improvements to make it better.  Adding great costs to take it from 97% good to 99% good.  While that 2% improvement may result with a better product no one driving the car would notice any difference.  Other than the much higher price the car carried for that additional 2% improvement.

This is the difference between the theoretical and the practical.  Between brilliant inventor and entrepreneur.  Between successful business owner and someone with a great idea but who can’t bring it to market.  The entrepreneur sees both the little picture (the brilliant idea) and the big picture (bringing it to market).  Something that a lot of people can’t see when they go into business.  The number one and number two business that fail are restaurants and construction.  Why?  Because these are often little picture people.  They may be a great chef or a great carpenter but they often haven’t a clue about business.

They don’t understand their costs.  And because they don’t they often don’t charge enough.  A lot of new business owners often think they need to charge less to lure business away from their competition.  And sometimes that’s true.  But selling a ‘low price’ instead of quality or value is a dangerous game to play.  Especially if you don’t know your costs.  Because as you sell you incur costs.  And have bills to pay.  Bills you need to pay with your sales revenue.  Which you won’t be able to do if you’re not charging enough.

If Business Operations can’t Produce Cash a Business Owner will have to Borrow Money to Pay the Bills

The successful small business owners understand both their long-term financing needs.  And their short-term financing needs.  They incur long-term debt to establish their business.  Debt they need to service.  And pay back.  To do that they need a source of money.  This must come from profitable business operations.  Which means that their sales revenue must make their current assets greater than their current liabilities.  The sum total of cash, accounts receivables and other current assets must be greater than their accounts payable, accrued payroll, accrued taxes, current portion of long-term debt, etc.  And there is only one thing that will do that.  Having sales revenue that covers all a business’s costs.

The successful business owner knows how much to charge.  They know how much their revenue can buy.  And what it can’t buy. They make the tough decisions.  These business owners stay in business.  They see the big picture.  How all the pieces of business fit together.  And how it is imperative to keep their current assets greater than their current liabilities.  For the difference between the two gives a business its working capital.  Which must be positive if they have any hope of servicing their debt.  And repaying it.  As well as growing their business.  Whereas if their working capital is negative the future is bleak.  For they won’t be able to pay their bills.  Grow their business.  Or service their debt.  Worse, because they can’t pay their bills they incur more debt.  As they will have to borrow more money to pay their bills.  Because their business isn’t producing the necessary cash.

Those restaurants and construction companies fail because their owners didn’t know any better.  Others fail despite knowing better.  Like GM, Chrysler, Hostess, just about any airline, Bethlehem Steel, most print newspapers, etc.  Who all entered costly union contracts during good economic times.  Costs their revenues couldn’t pay for in bad economic times.  Which was most of the time.  As they struggled to pay union labor and benefits they run out of money before they could pay their other bills.  As their current liabilities exceeded their current assets.  So instead of producing working capital they ran a deficit.  Forcing them to incur more debt to finance this shortfall.  Again and again.  Until their debt grew so great that it required an interest payment they couldn’t pay.  And now they are no longer with us today.  Having had no choice but to file bankruptcy.

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Working Capital

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 3rd, 2012

Economics 101

A Business Owner uses Start-Up Capital to Pay the Bills until the Business starts Making Money to Pay the Bills

Few people understand how business works.  Some think it’s a mystical entity that has an endless supply of money for the taking.  To be taken by the government.  The unions.  And their employees.  While some believe business is some evil entity that acquired its wealth by taking it from poor people.  Poor people that had no wealth to give.  Because they’re poor.  Who we define as being poor because they have no wealth.

But businesses aren’t mystical or evil.  They’re run by ordinary people.  Often doing extraordinary things.  In a constant battle to survive.  They start off by risking everything they’ve ever earned and saved.  Perhaps persuading family to invest in them and their idea.  Or mortgaging their house to the hilt.  Just to get the money to start their business.  Short term financing to pay the bills until the business starts making money to pay the bills.  If the business ever starts making money to pay the bills.

One of the most misunderstood things about business is that their prices are pure profit.  When you buy a $4.50 cup of coffee from Starbucks people think that’s $4.50 of profit.  But it’s not.  That price has to pay for the coffee beans.  The water.  The regular milk.  The low-fat milk.  The flavored syrup.  The cup.  The cup sleeve so you can hold it without burning you hand.  The lid.  The plastic stick that plugs the drinking hole in the lid.  The baristas working there.  The equipment to grind the coffee beans.  To make coffee.  To make espresso.  To make steam to heat the milk.  The point-of-sale cash registers.  The lights.  The heat.  The air conditioning.  The Internet access provided free to their customers.  The soap and toilet paper in the restrooms.  Garbage bags.  Cream.  Sugar.  Sugar substitute.  Coffee stirrers.  The rent.  The telephone bill.  Marketing.  Etc.  They have to recover all of these costs in the sales price of their coffee.  With enough left over to pay for growth.

For a Business to be able to Pay their Bills their Current Assets must be Greater than their Current Liabilities

Bills.  Everyone has them.  And business owners have more than most.  Because it takes money to make money.  A business owner has to spend a lot of money to make something to sell.  Like a cup of coffee.  So they incur a lot of costs.  Costs that their revenues have to pay.  For a business like Starbucks that’s mostly cash and credit card sales.  For other businesses that could be sales on account.  Or accounts receivable.  Sales that don’t result in cash.  But a promise to pay cash later.  Like a lot of those bills Starbucks has to pay.  Things they bought on account.  With the promise to pay cash later.

Businesses have current liabilities.  Which include the bills they owe.  Accrued payroll.  Accrued payroll taxes.  And everything else that they have to pay within one year.  All of which they have to pay with current assets.  Such as cash.  Or short-term assets they can convert into cash within one year.  Like accounts receivable.  Or things that conserve cash.  Like prepaid expenses.  For a business to be able to pay their bills their current assets must be greater than their current liabilities.  If their current liabilities are greater than their current assets, though, they will have some problems paying their bills.

The relationship between current assets and current liabilities is important.  If we divide current assets by current liabilities we get the current ratio.  If this is greater than one then a business will find it easier to pay their bills.  If it’s less than one then a business will struggle to pay their bills.  And may not be able to pay their bills.  If they can’t they are insolvent.  Meaning that they are not selling at high enough prices.  They’re not selling enough.  Or their costs are just too great at the prevailing market prices.  And if any of the above is true they may have no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection.  Because they simply cannot pay their bills.

If a Business can’t Generate Cash (Working Capital) Borrowing Money will only Delay the Inevitable—Bankruptcy

Cash is king.  A business has to have it.  And if they’re business can’t generate it they have to get it someplace else.  Either by borrowing it from the bank.  From family.  Or taking out another mortgage on their home.  All of which are short-term solutions to a much bigger problem.  For if their business can’t generate cash borrowing money will only delay the inevitable.  Bankruptcy.  Which means they either have to raise their sales volume.  Raise their prices.  Or cut their costs.  To get their current ratio above one.  Making them solvent again.

When you subtract current liabilities from current assets you get a business’ working capital.  The greater a business’ working capital is the easier it is for them to pay their bills.  And the easier it is to grow their business.  Or to offer raises, bonuses, more generous benefits, etc.  For to do any of these things a business first has to be able to pay their bills.  If they can keep paying their bills and maintain a current ratio above one for a few consecutive accounting periods they will find themselves with a surplus of cash.  Or working capital.  Useable cash to expand business operations.  Or to better pay their employees.

Of course if a business is too generous with their employees it will dry up that working capital and make it harder to pay their other bills.  For example, when generous union contracts impose heavy costs on a business while the prevailing market prices prevents them from charging enough to be able to afford those generous union contracts a business will soon find itself in financial difficulties.  Leading to a possible bankruptcy.  Where a bankruptcy court allows them to renegotiate their union contracts.  So their sales at prevailing market prices can afford them.  As well as their other bills.  While leaving enough working capital left over to grow their business.  Replace some worn out equipment.  Or repay a loan.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

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