Monday, February 28, 2011

The Japanese Pay the Price

The figures are in for U.S. auto sales in 2010. The biggest winners in percentage growth were Hyundai, at 24%, and Ford at 20%. Toyota lost .4% and Honda grew a mediocre 7%. The Japanese struggled in 2010.

Earlier we wrote a blog about Ford’s ascendency and Toyota’s problems (see Blog HERE). Toyota is paying the price for failing its customers. Honda appears to be getting painted with the “failure” brush, though I doubt its punishment is deserved.

I am actually using the word “fail” to mean something specific here. A company fails its customers when it is unable or unwilling to do something that at least half of its competitors can, or will, do for customers. Toyota’s troubles with accelerators, floor mats, and so forth, received extensive media coverage. This coverage clearly has had a negative impact on Toyota this year.

Toyota’s struggles illustrate the win and fail dynamic. In our terms, a “win” occurs when a company is able to do something that the majority of its competitors either can not or will not do. Wins account for a good deal of market share growth in a fast-growing market, but are less important in more mature markets. In a more mature Stable market and, especially, in all Hostile markets, failure moves a significant amount of market share.

Here is what this means. The decision to change a supplier is really two decisions. The first is the decision to leave a current supplier and the second is the decision on which new supplier to take on in your relationship. In the average Stable and Hostile marketplace, more market share moves on failure than on wins. This means that before an established customer will change suppliers, its current incumbent supplier must “fail” the relationship in some way. This failure, then, opens up the customer’s relationship to competition among other potential suppliers. Whichever supplier gains this customer’s volume really did so only after the incumbent failed. We call this gain a “weak win.” The “weak win” would not have happened on a straight-up comparison of performance and price of the new supplier versus the old. The gain only happened after the incumbent clearly failed the customer and then opened the relationship to someone new.

Toyota’s failure was largely a failure of Reliability. It clearly lost share. The companies that gained this share from Toyota, Ford and Hyundai among them, enjoyed some degree of a “weak win” in the domestic automobile market. They may have “won” market share as well, but my guess is that most of their share gains from Toyota fell to them from Toyota’s “failure.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

But Can You Control Other Entrants?

The United Autoworkers (UAW) is on a new campaign. The union plans to organize workers in hither-to non-union foreign-owned automobile plants in the United States. This campaign may or may not work, but in the long run it will prove futile unless the union can compete in the international market, against all international auto workers.

There are 575,000 autoworkers in the U.S. Nearly 20% work for foreign-owned plants. All of these plants are non-union. The foreign-owned plants were intentionally placed in right-to-work areas, many in the South.

The UAW is likely to have some difficulty succeeding with this campaign. The non-union workers already earn highly competitive wages and benefits. To date, these U.S. workers in plants owned by Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Honda have shown little interest in unionization.

Why would the union be so interested in this initiative? To preserve its membership. The traditional problem with unions is less the rate of wages they demand and more about the work rules they impose. These work rules reduce the productivity of the unionized plants. That has certainly been the case in the U.S. auto industry. As a result, the UAW is losing membership as UAW auto plants in the U.S. close under the onerous costs the UAW plants carry. If the union can succeed in unionizing the domestic foreign-owned auto plants to the same extent they have unionized the domestic manufacturers’ plants, they will be able to impose the same work rules and produce roughly the same productivity. The result should, in the union’s eyes, be a reduction in the rate of jobs lost in the union.

But there is a problem here. The UAW has already seen that it was unable to stop new non-union plants in the U.S. How will it stop future non-union domestic plants? O.K., let’s say they can do that. Will they also be able to stop all foreign non-union plants from becoming established and growing? Certainly not. Unless the union membership can compete on an international basis with competitive costs and productivity, this unionization effort is wasted money. If it succeeds, the U.S. loses more plants to plants located offshore. Union membership still falls.

It seems that one of the problems for unionized employees is one of definition. Union members often call their compatriots in competing companies “brothers and sisters.” These are certainly not brothers and sisters. In a marketplace they are competitors. Union employees have to be able to beat, or at least stalemate, these competitors or lose their jobs. This is true as long as the UAW can not control the entrance of other less expensive competitors, either in the U.S. or elsewhere.

The long history of the DRAM semiconductor market illustrates this. The U.S. manufacturers of DRAM semiconductors faced intense competition from the Japanese in the 1980s. The domestic industry succeeded in slowing the Japanese by using the International Trade Commission. Then arose new and equally troublesome problems. These problems were DRAM semiconductor facilities in Taiwan and Korea. Eventually, the U.S. industry evolved to the point where it had only one domestic producer of DRAM chips. Intel was one of the early competitors to get out of that market to focus its resources in the more complex, and much more profitable, domestic micro-processor business. SX4MBURBCAJQ

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Apple Gets Crossways with App Developers

Recently, Apple rejected a digital book application from Sony. The disagreement here is over how and when Apple collects for its services. Apple is playing a dangerous game.

In theory, Apple has the right to insist, under its terms for developers, that any app, which offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, offer the ability for customers to purchase within the app at the same time.

Here is the rub. In its application, Sony sends customers to its own web site where they complete the purchase of a book. By routing the customers to its own web site, Sony is able to avoid a payment of 30% of revenues to Apple.

Others, including Amazon, with its Kindle, and Barnes & Noble, with its Nook, have been able to sell e-books by sending users to the companys’ own web sites. Apple simply was not enforcing its policy requiring developers to use its in-app purchasing feature to buy new content.

A 30% charge on revenues is a high price to pay Apple. Apple may be setting itself up for future loss of market share by enforcing this policy. If the Android platform does not put the same requirement on its app developers, the developers will have a strong incentive to avoid the 30% charge by encouraging customers to purchase using an Android device rather than an Apple device. Alternatively, the application developers may charge a higher price for purchases through Apple.

Apple’s unique strength has been its superior list of available applications. Apple’s enforcement of this requirement to purchase inside the app so that Apple can collect 30% of the revenues puts at risk its major advantage. Apple needs to compromise here by charging a lower price or no price at all. After all, it already makes high profits on its hardware and software product combination. It also makes profits on many of the downloaded apps. The application developers are customers too. Why make their life difficult? Does the benefit Apple provides a seller justify 30% of revenues? Sounds pretty rich.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Constrictions in Components Supply Support Higher Prices

Years ago we were doing some work in the roofing business. In one study, we were working on the asphalt shingle roofing manufacturing business. At the time, this was a terrible business. Returns were low, growth rates were modest, at best, and there was a good deal of overcapacity in the industry. Then the industry caught a break. A shortage in asphalt developed. This shortage of asphalt rolled through the asphalt shingle plants and restricted their output. Immediately, prices jumped, returns became attractive and industry participants breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, this asphalt shortage did not last very long. The industry shortly returned to its previous hostile condition. (See the Perspective, “What Ends Hostility?” on

A shortage in any component, or labor, will restrict industry capacity and tend to raise prices. A labor shortage is, in part, responsible for some of the high prices in mining today. Miners work in areas that are often hard to reach. They also are skilled employees. The run-up in commodity prices, especially those related to ores such as silver, gold and copper, has increased the demand for these skilled miners. In addition, the mining industry faces competition for skilled workers from the oil and natural gas industries, which are also growing.

Mining companies are now going to great lengths to attract and retain these skilled workers. Some of these miners are now earning 25% more in compensation than they were a year ago. Some companies are flying workers to and from remote mines. For example, BHP Billiton plans to fly 500 workers from Brisbane, about 500 miles away, to a coal mine site that they are opening and then fly them back home after a couple of weeks.

If this commodity boom continues, the industry’s total capacity will be determined more by labor availability than by its more traditional measures of capacity. (See “Audio Tip #117: Capacity Constraints and Pricing” on

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Direct Edge: A Transformer Next Leader Product

A Next Leader competitor is in an extremely fortunate position. A Next Leader is a competitor or product that offers much better than industry standard performance for a low price to a specific subset of industry customers. While offering better benefits to some customers, it may reduce benefits for others. But all Next Leaders offer low prices. The Next Leader can do this because it has a very low cost structure. (See “Video #22: Definition of Next Leaders” on Next Leaders do not appear in many industries. When they do appear, they can change an industry, whether the industry is in manufacturing, retail or service. For example, Toys R Us invented the Toy Retailing Category Killer, a Next Leader product. Home Depot has done much the same in hardware retailing. Other Next Leaders include the early Apple personal computer, Intuit personal financial management software, Jiffy Lube in auto services and Domino’s Pizza.

We have studied many Next Leader competitors. Our study has suggested there are two kinds of Next Leaders products: Reformers and Transformers. A Reformer product is a type of Next Leader that reduces the benefits for the user while increasing benefits for the buyer, compared to the industry’s Standard Leader product. Jiffy Lube and Domino’s Pizza would both be Reformer Next Leader competitors. The second type of Next Leader competitor, Transformer products and companies, increase the benefits for the user of the product but offers, at least initially, fewer buyer benefits than the Standard Leader product. Toys R Us and Home Depot are two examples of Transformer Next Leader competitors.

Direct Edge is an example of a Transformer competitor. It offers its customers very fast securities trading on virtually any platform, from computers to smart phones. It is a young electronic stock exchange and it is having a big impact on securities trading. Its first noticeable impact is in market share. As recently as five years ago, the New York Stock Exchange accounted for 70% or more of the trading in the stocks listed on its exchange. Today, the stock exchange handles 36% of those trades. (See “Audio Tip #85: Evaluate the Company's Success in Penetrating each Price Point in the Market” on Twelve other public exchanges, several electronic trading platforms and many “dark pools” command the rest of the market share in NYSE listed stocks.

Direct Edge came into existence during 2010. Several brokerage firms and other financial players formed Direct Edge to offer a counter veiling power to the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Direct Edge now owns 10% of stock trading in the United States.

Direct Edge is not only big and fast-growing, but inexpensive as well. It has ready access to the share trading of its brokerage house and hedge fund owners. It operates many banks of state-of-the-art computers in warehouse-type facilities in New Jersey rather than in more-expensive New York. And, despite its size, it has fewer than one hundred employees.

The evolution of these non-traditional exchanges has resulted in declining trading costs and much faster trading times for all customers. Next Leaders do that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The iPhone Versus the iPhone

After nearly four years, AT&T has lost its exclusivity on Apple’s iPhone. It has been a great run. Now AT&T faces the formidable competition of Verizon, who started offering the iPhone in February of 2011. Market shares are about to shift. Let’s look at how they might change.

Market shares among established customers shift for one of two reasons. (See Audio Tip #40: The Components of Market Share Change" on First, a competitor may “win” market share by offering a benefit that more than half of the market suppliers do not offer. On the other hand, market share may shift away from a competitor if it “fails” its customer relationship and opens that relationship to other competitors. A company “fails” a customer relationship when it refuses, or is unable, to offer something that half the other competitors in the market can or will offer.

AT&T garnered much of its share gain over the last four years with a “win.” That “win” was due to its exclusive offering of the Apple iPhone. While it won business with the iPhone, it developed a reputation for problems in the quality of its services. iPhone users tended to overwhelm the AT&T network and cause interruptions and dropped phone calls. AT&T’s customer service has been suspect as well. Still, its market share has grown with the iPhone, primarily at the expense of the smaller carriers. Its market share growth due to the exclusive on the iPhone offset its “failures” in its network and customer service.

Now Verizon enters with its own version of the iPhone. Today, any customer who wants an iPhone can choose either the largest competitor in the market, Verizon, or the second largest competitor, AT&T as his or her carrier. So, Verizon can “win” market share against the smaller competitors as well. These competitors, such as Sprint, Virgin Mobile and others like them, do not offer the iPhone and are unlikely to do so soon.

Verizon should also be able to gain share at the expense of AT&T. Here’s how. iPhone-using customers who are dissatisfied with their current service with AT&T now have a viable, high quality competitor offering an equivalent service with the same phone. Some of these customers will leave AT&T because they perceive that AT&T’s services are not up to the standard of the other competitors, especially Verizon’s, and migrate to Verizon. This is a phenomenon we call “flight to quality.” This “flight to quality” is also an example of a “weak win,” where a competitor gains share only after an incumbent supplier has “failed” the customer relationship.

This “flight to quality” is unlikely to be dramatic. A company can “win” share quickly with a unique Function. On the other hand, a “flight to quality” usually brings share gains in dribs and drabs. It produces share gains slowly, over time, because of inertia in the customer relationships. This inertia allows AT&T time to get its house in order before it suffers a great deal of customer immigration. (See Video #36: Probable Priorities for Innovation in Hostile Markets on

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Price Can Go to Zero

For many years, the fees charged by investment managers of mutual funds grew ever so slightly, gradually approaching 1.5%. Over the last few years, though, the growth in these management fees has stopped. In fact, it reversed. Last year the average management fee charged for actively managed mutual funds was 1.38%, or 138 basis points, where a basis point is one tenth of one percent. But that average is badly misleading. It’s misleading because it treats all funds, regardless of size, as the same. When you adjust the fees for the size of the funds, you find that the dollar-weighted average for actively managed funds is now below 100 basis points. Three things have caused this reversal in management fees: low returns in the stock market, the growth of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and a price war among the biggest players in the market.

The first two of these factors need little explanation. Over the last ten years, an investment in many bond funds out-performed an investment in diversified equity funds. These low returns have many investors focusing on the costs they incur for the management of their money. These costs include transaction fees for trading securities and management fees for the companies managing mutual funds or exchanged-traded funds. The second factor, the growth of ETFs, is somewhat less obvious, but important. ETFs have garnered a significant share of new money invested in equity funds over the last few years. Companies managing ETFs charge low fees for managing these funds because they have very low costs for shareholder servicing and some other administrative functions associated with investment management. Shrewd mutual fund managers have reduced prices in order to manage the gap in pricing they allow for their managed mutual funds compared to comparable ETFs.

These two causes of the fall in prices for investment management now have a third important factor. This third factor may turn out to be the most important of all. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is seeing its first price wars” on As described in other blogs (see blogs HERE and HERE), Vanguard has started, and continued, a price war in the ETF market. For example, iShare’s MSCI Emerging Market’s ETF and Vanguard’s Emerging Market’s ETF compete directly. Vanguard’s fund charges 27 basis points. The iShare’s fund charges 69 basis points. The iShare’s fund entered the market well before the Vanguard fund, and was much larger than the Vanguard fund. However, during 2010, the Vanguard ETF added $18 billion to its fund while iShare’s added about $4 billion. Price matters among peers.

The iShare’s funds are not always market share losers, however. The iShare’s Gold Trust is an ETF that competes with a larger rival, SPDR Gold Trust. Until June of last year, both of these ETFs charged 40 basis points. In June, iShares cut its management fees to 25 basis points. SPDR Gold Trust stayed pat at 40 basis points. Over the next few months, the iShare’s fund gained $875 million in new money, while the SPDR Gold Trust saw a net loss of $1.2 billion of money under management. Price matters among peers.

These management fees can even go to zero. One ETF today has no management fee, zero. It gets its revenues by lending out the securities in its portfolio. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Technology improvements bring falling prices” on

Of course, as companies engage in price wars, they advertise their lower prices extensively in order to capture as much market share as possible before their competitors respond. The result: customers are becoming ever more price sensitive about the management fees they pay, simply because the management companies tell them to be more sensitive.

How long will it be until this fee warfare spreads to other smaller types of ETFs? Not very long, as long as price moves share.