Monday, April 7, 2008

Why The Fed Interfered With Bear Stearns

Now that the potential Bear Stearns implosion/collapse has calmed down a bit, it's interesting to look at it from a slightly different angle. The Fed encouraged JPMorgan Chase to buy Bear at a ridiculous price to keep Bear from going under. What's interesting about this is: why is the Fed so heavily involved in this whole deal, and if the Fed was so heavily involved why was JPMorgan involved at all?
The Fed's offer to take on Bear's terrible securities meant JPMorgan didn't need to be brought into any potential transaction at all. For instance, if Bear can somehow manage to rid themselves of their nearly-worthless, mortgage-backed securities then they would probably rebound nicely and return to being a pretty good invesment bank (most of the securities under management at Bear are still performing very well). Taking those bad securities off Bear's hands is exactly what the Fed was offering to do for JPMorgan if JPM could succeed in their takeover bid. But again, why is JPMorgan involved at all? Perhaps to avoid the appearance of impropriety?
Let's ask the obvious question: why is the Fed suddenly so directly involved with Wall Street's problems? This can't be overstated, but the Fed's offer to bail out Bear Stearns for JPM is, by far, the absolute MOST involved the Fed's ever been in any part of Wall Street's business. The reason for such heavy involvement could be traced to the ripple effect of what would happen if Bear Stearns was left to collapse on its own. Namely, loan confidence would plummet, mortgage payments would rise sharply (for quite a few years) and I'm not just talking about personal loans and residential loans but small business loans and commercial mortgages as well. None of this would be fatally damaging to the behemoth of a supertanker that is the U.S. economy (we've survived very large financial institution failures before), BUT, if the U.S. economy is teetering on the precipice of a recession, Bear's failure would certainly tip it over.
Understand that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a Bush appointee, it's an election year, and a full-scale recession might cripple the Republicans' chances of securing the White House for another four years. Am I stretching this into a bit of a conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But I'll bet (and don't be surprised if) Bernanke has to answer some tough questions in the coming months.

Can Comcast or Verizon take down YouTube?

I recently interviewed with Comcast for a Director of Marketing position within their Interactive Media Division (basically their website properties,, Ziddio, GameInvasion). I didn’t get the job but while going over the job description and thinking about strategies for improving their sites, I did have one interesting thought. Firstly, Comcast seems resigned to abandon Ziddio and let it fall by the wayside (Ziddio is their YouTube competitor). Comcast may believe that YouTube has already won the online video market, but I beg to differ. A quick poll of my friends, relatives and former employees revealed that none of them had ever uploaded a video to YouTube. Being a technologically savvy guy myself and knowing a lot of programmers I expected to find at least one person who had. But I didn’t. What that poll revealed to me is that there's a small, monopolized market of potential "uploaders" on the web. Admittedly, home movies are getting uploaded on YouTube quite regularly, but what about all the TV-related videos? One of my favorite videos on YouTube is Tracy McGrady’s “13-in-33”. At the end of a Rockets game in 2006, T-Mac scored 13-points in the final 33 seconds to help the Rockets win by one. Do a YouTube search for this and tell me what you think of the video quality. Right away, from just using the T-Mac example, we can see two opportunities for Comcast and/or Verizon to take on YouTube. First, there is a chance to compete with YouTube on video quality… (how nice would it be to have that 13-in-33 video much clearer?). And second, who uploaded that? I didn't. And again, I don't know anybody who has ever uploaded anything to YouTube. Why wouldn’t Comcast / Verizon want to democratize the video upload process and make it an easy and accessible procedure for anyone to achieve? Well, we have to remember that both Verizon and Comcast are media providers first and foremost. Their stock-tickers don't list them as "interactive media" companies, so interactive media gets its own designation and becomes a “separate” division at both companies. But, I have no doubt, that somewhere down the road one these two companies (either Verizon or Comcast) will realize what opportunity they're sitting on, and completely democratize video uploading to make it a universal process. When this happens, it will also be the first time that a company has made Google's famed management trifecta eat their collective lunch. Finally, (as a management strategist myself) can you see how easy it would be to motivate a team involved on this project with the whole “we’re going to take on Google and beat them” rallying cry? How would this whole project work? Well, Comcast would have to create an opportunity for any person with a digital receiver to select, let’s say five minutes of video per day (or week) to upload directly through their boxes onto Ziddio. It would go up with the account holder’s name and be of much better quality than the current selections of TV recordings on YouTube. How quickly will YouTube fold when Comcast or Verizon undertakes this strategy? I'd say less than six months. It would not take long before people in your office to be talking about something they happened to catch on TV last night and Ziddioing it. For instance... "Hey, did you see me at the game last night? I was sitting behind home plate. I Ziddoed the highlights and you can see me. Check it out." Once the TV uploads are on Ziddio, the home movies and other random clips currently circulationg on YouTube would quickly follow -- mostly because the amount of users uploading videos to the web would increase exponentially, virtually overnight. There are, of course, legal (and bandwidth) hurdles to overcome on such a project… as mentioned before, I would suggest limiting the amount of uploads per box to a set number of minutes per day or per week, to help hold down bandwidth and storage space. Also, if the uploads are limited to a certain number of minutes then an entire program can’t be Ziddoed -- which greatly helps with the legal issues. After speaking with a lawyer friend of mine, he admitted it’s a muddy, gray area. After all, Comcast would just be removing a step or two from the current process YouTube’s users go through to upload video (mainly, connecting a Tivo to a computer, recording, creating a YouTube account and then uploading). However, Comcast's legal team is (reportedly) one of the finest in the business (you have to have graduated from a top-20 law school or graduated in the top 5% of your class to work in Comcast's legal department), so I'm sure they could hammer out the legal issues. So there are some steps that need to be taken for this project to be worked out… but whichever company (Verizon or Comcast) realizes this opportunity first and undertakes the project… well let's just say that company will be the one that corners the market on online video and relegates YouTube to the dustbin of internet history.