September 28th, 2009
06:14 AM GMT
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“My accountant says I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I'm cash poor or something. I got no cash flow. I'm not liquid, something's not flowing.” - Isaac Davis in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

There are a number of metaphors that can be used to describe liquidity in the financial markets. One is to think of every object of value – cash, stocks, houses, art – as pieces of ice, frozen in value. Its liquidity can be measured by its ability to melt and reconstitute itself in value while changing hands.

Cash is highly liquid, because there is little change in value when sold or exchanged – so it melts and freezes quite nicely. Rare objects of art are among the most illiquid – they are auctioned and transferred back into cash once every few decades.

A way I prefer to think of liquidity as is oil. What caused the global economy to sputter last year was the commercial paper market, a financial tool as mundane as the motor oil that sits in the engine pan of every automobile. Imagine, however, the oil in every car in the world suddenly drying up below manufacturer specifications – poorly maintained cars start choking, creating traffic jams worldwide. Even Ferraris begin to ping and rattle.

The commercial paper market keeps companies running day-to-day because a going concern’s accounts receivable rarely matches its accounts payable. Large companies regularly borrow millions for one-day, low-interest loans so they can, for example, make payroll while waiting for clients and customers’ checks to clear. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, however, the Reserve Money Fund – the market’s oldest money fund that is fed daily by the commercial paper – “broke the buck”. For the first time ever every dollar invested in the fund was worth only 97 cents.

When you hear about “the collapse of the world financial system,” this is the ground zero event. Investors in the traditionally safe fund suddenly run for cover, exacerbating the crisis. Well-run, profitable businesses with no connection to the subprime mortgage debacle suddenly face a liquidity crunch.

Like Isaac Davis in “Manhattan,” the world banking system found “something’s not flowing.” And many of the efforts of governments around the world are to keep the spigot going.

September 23rd, 2009
05:24 AM GMT
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Nearly 10 years after doing my first story on e-mail etiquette in the workplace, I thought I’d seen it all until I noticed this item in a New Zealand newspaper: “Emails spark woman’s sacking.”

I expected to read another example of inappropriate virtual behavior – a racy forwarded e-mail or some such specimen. But the story was about a New Zealand accountant who successfully sued her former employer for wrongful termination. Why was she fired? Because her notes to colleagues WERE ALWAYS WRITTEN IN CAPS: the e-mail equivalent of shouting. The company claimed it created “disharmony in the workplace.”

It seems we still have some distance to cross regarding e-mail and its impact on the workplace. New research from the University of Queensland in Australia shows that ambiguous e-mails are a major source of workplace stress – even more than volume of e-mail. They leave colleagues and direct reports to wonder: What did she or he mean by that?

Through years of reporting on the topic (and my own bitter experience) here are my golden rules when e-mailing.

Avoid premature e-mailation

Add the address of the e-mail last. Often it is the first, as a reply or “all reply.” This can be deadly because the “save” and “send” buttons are often dangerously close to one another. By putting the e-mail address last, it creates an automatic pause to rethink sending the note, or make sure you are sending the note to the intended parties. It also helps eliminate slips such as dishing dirt by e-mail on a colleague or boss and then accidentally sending it to that person.

Never drink and email

Back in the day, I used to be a party-hardy character, and paid for it with hangovers and e-mail regret (how I wished someone would develop a USB breathalyzer that locks the computer if inebriated).

I eliminated this problem by eliminating alcohol from my diet (which solved many other problems as well). But if abstinence isn’t for you, then at least abstain from drunken e-mails: No machinery, not even computers, should be operated while impaired.

Keep it short

One study by Vanderbilt University shows you can tell the company level of an employee by their e-mail: Top executives are short and to the point (a result of the volume and speed - it  says “I’m busy” ). Middle management is wordy (a result of trying to influence higher ups) and lower-rung e-mails are chatty (more a social function of the work place).

Here, the top execs got it right. Email is a very inefficient tool to sway opinion. Straight forward is the way forward.

Reader responsibility

One study I read forever altered how I view and use e-mail.  It showed that the tone – funny, sarcastic, serious – of e-mails is misinterpreted half of the time. That means unless the sender has the talent of Ernest Hemingway to convey emotion with an economy of words, it’s a coin-toss whether the feelings the note produces in the reader are legitimate.

Anytime I get an e-mail that causes an emotional response in me, I stop and remember this study. And rather than react, I simply write “Thanks!” Or I pick up the phone. Or I press ‘delete’ and go about my day.

Got any e-mail advice or war stories? Share your story with CNN.

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September 16th, 2009
05:13 AM GMT
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DALIAN, China (CNN) – After a decade writing about careers for The Wall Street Journal, CNN and others – as well as thumbing through countless books on professional advice – here is a summation of all I have learned:

Careers are built on two things – your skills and your relationships with people.

That’s it.

Skills and relationships are the DNA of all careers, the primordial soup from which the extravagant feathers, hooves or claws of any livelihood emerge. Of the two, relationships trump skills, because how do you grow those skills? Through your relationships with others – exposure to new ideas, colleagues, teachers and friends.

I was reminded of that at the World Economic Forum in Dalian. While the economy is still in crisis and cost-cutting a top concern, hundreds of business leaders from around the world still converged on this Chinese city. It speaks, I think, to the importance of growing and maintaining relationships not despite but because of the 'Great Recession.'

It struck me how much of the advice given to companies at the forum –the need to take risks rather than being paralyzed by fear, using the crisis as a springboard for growth – could be applied to individuals as well. And yet, fear of losing what you have (namely, your job) rather than what you can gain (future promotions, opportunities) rules the cubicles.

Company leaders talked constantly about the need for innovation – not just new technology, but new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking. Brought down to the individual, I think the innovation can be translated to this: Curiosity.

“I think you’re right, I think that’s true,” Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP told me. “If you want to build your way out of the recession, that’s a critical skill.”

Curiosity about a problem leads to problem-solving; it defuses knee-jerk reaction and fears in favor of a thoughtful, proactive response. Curiosity radiates authentic interest in colleagues, competitors and consumers. Curiosity creates the meteorological conditions required for brainstorming. Curiosity is the key that unlocks passion, which is better than coffee to get you out of bed.

Heroes are created in times of crisis. Unlock your curiosity about the problems you confront, and you just may innovate your way ahead of the pack.

What skills are important in a time of recession? Share your thoughts with CNN.

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September 10th, 2009
04:12 PM GMT
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DALIAN, China - At one of the first conferences of the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” on Thursday, a large white elephant slowly materialized in the center of the room.

The financial crisis still looms large in the minds of participants, as evidenced by sessions like the morning conference on “Management Lessons from the Great Recession.” A word that appeared time and again at that talk: Transparency.

The CEOs on stage discussed how lack of transparency in financial markets helped lead to collapse. Maurice Levy, CEO and chairman of France’s Publicis Group, said in today’s media environment “every wrongdoing will be known,” making transparency crucial. Added Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent: “In every industry, you have to increase transparency in every aspect of business.” 

Every time “transparency” was mentioned, however, a white elephant grew from a hint of a shadow into a full-blown pachyderm in the crowded conference hall. Finally the moderator, Helmutt Schutte, gently posed a question to the panel’s sole Chinese participant: How about transparency in China?

“We have too much transparency,” said Sun Hong, chairman of the Dalian Port Company, explaining the strength of the unions and importance in shared decision-making; state-owned companies have further oversight from Communist Party secretaries. He gave a detailed response to a difficult question – and yet, to me, the elephant remained in the room.

Concerns about the transparency in China remain high, especially in light of the recent arrests of Rio Tinto employees on charges of stealing state secrets. Yet the “Summer Davos” conference itself is a testament to the importance of China on the global economic stage. As one CEO said, the recession has accelerated the rise of China.

If transparency is a key lesson from the Great Recession, and if China is key player for the world economic rebound, then what will be the outcome when these divergent forces meet? I would have asked the white elephant, but he was in a rush: Too many meetings to attend.

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September 8th, 2009
03:39 AM GMT
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Pop the champagne, light both candles and sing “Happy Birthday” - the Financial Crisis turns two years old.

Author’s parents, Dale and Rosemary Voigt, at his boyhood home in Jasper, Ind.
Author’s parents, Dale and Rosemary Voigt, at his boyhood home in Jasper, Ind.

There are many dates that can be celebrated as the birth of the Credit Crisis, or the “Great Recession.” (Its official christening, it seems, is awaiting anointment by the historians.) It could be July 11, when in 2007 Standard & Poors finally found religion and degraded the credit rating of 612 securities backed by subprime mortgages. Or Sept. 14 when the Bank of England stepped in to provide liquidity support to U.K. lender Northern Rock.

If you missed the birth, you couldn’t miss the first birthday - a year ago this week the U.S. government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, signaling the start of a wild month that saw Lehman Brothers fold and the crisis smolder into a blaze across the planet.

For me, the crisis began May 21, 2007, when my mother and father put 416 W. 9th St. on the market in Jasper, Indiana – a small German Catholic community in the southwestern corner of the state. My boyhood home.

My siblings talked my parents into purchasing a stairless home better suited for retirees in what passes for the suburbs of Jasper. They purchased the second home, sure that the first would sell fast.

Fast forward two years – through my wife’s surprise pregnancy, the birth of Jonah and his first birthday party this past July – and still, the “For Sale” sign hung on 416 W. 9th St.

In the interim, more than 100 people viewed the house. Two people made offers – one contingent on the sale of her existing home (which didn’t happen) another on approval of a bank loan (which also didn’t happen). My parents plowed $13,000 into upgrades – new carpeting, flooring, wallpaper and paint. My mother planted two statues of St. Joseph in the backyard. (Among the His saintly duties are home sales – you can buy $10 “St. Joseph Statue Home Sales Kits” on the Internet).

The sale was emotionally tough for me. Living abroad since 1996, 416 W. 9th St. was the only piece of real estate in the world I knew as home. It’s where all my letters, diaries and LPs lived. (According to my U.S. driver’s license, I still live there.)

Last month, my family here in Hong Kong got on a plane to visit my parents, but I wouldn’t be showing my boy my boyhood home: The day we landed, 416 W. 9th St. was sold.

From an original asking price of nearly $135,000, my parents accepted a $105,000 offer. “Obviously, we would have wanted to get more than we finally did,” my father said. “But every month paying utilities, insurance, taxes on two homes … there comes a time when you have to bite the bullet.”

While visiting, my mother wanted to take us to the old house and show off all the upgrades that finally led to the sale, but I wasn’t interested in seeing the new, improved homestead. The place remains holy ground where three beloved dogs are buried. The typewriter tap of my first story and first notes playing guitar haunt its newly finished rooms. The front porch is where I stole my first kiss.

Despite market prices, financial crisis and the address on my driver’s license, the old saying remains true: You can never go home again.

How has the financial crisis affected your family? Share your story with CNN.

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July 24th, 2009
04:31 AM GMT
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Remember the anticipation that used to come with turning on a new computer? The graphics were cooler, the load-time faster and the new features in the operating system inspired awe.

When did that end? Starting up my latest laptop was a less than thrilling experience. Sure it was new and shiny, but the user experience was essentially the same as the computer I'd had before. Faster, yes, but the difference to me as a relatively average computer user was negligible. Look I love my new laptop, but it simply is not leaps and bounds ahead of my last one.

So that got me thinking - what would make my mouth drop open these days when it comes to a new laptop? There is only one thing that really frustrates me anymore: battery life. What good is wireless Internet when you can only be so far from a power socket? A 16-hour transcontinental flight and a four-hour battery life do not a happy work trip make.

Acer CEO J.T. Wang is betting other consumers feel the same way. The Taiwanese company has just launched a series of laptops they say have eight-plus hours of battery life. "Eight is a magical number, according to market studies." says Wang. "Because eight hours represents a whole day computing and you don't have to bring a big adapter."

Apparently, the battle to build a better battery is a battle of the bulge – it all comes down to weight. Building a lighter, more powerful battery appears to be more challenging than building lighter, more powerful chips.

As for me, I don't know if an eight-hour battery life is enough. I want 16. Or 24.Honestly I'd be happiest if I never had to plug the thing in at all.

How many hours of computing time would keep you satisfied?

July 23rd, 2009
05:28 AM GMT
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If you want to make money in the pharmaceutical industry, you must be looking for the next Viagra. Or the next Prozac. Or the next Botox.

In short, if you want to extend the financial life of your pharmaceutical company, you focus on extending the quality of life for potential consumers – not necessarily the duration. Chronic ailments are rainmakers – acute illnesses such as Swine Flu, or H1N1, typically are flashes in the pan and not worth the R&D expense, researchers say.

“There haven’t been that many new drugs out there for acute diseases,” Dr. Robert C. Liddington, director of the infectious disease department at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in California, told me shortly after H1N1 broke out.

“One reason for that is the poor business model – it’s hard to make money curing people,” he said. “But influenza is big enough and there is big enough market use.”

A big reason companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Roche can sell H1N1-related treatments is that governments are stepping in to create a market, said Joseph Giambrone, a professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

“They don’t make a lot of money on vaccines … if they come out with an influenza vaccine and it mutates (into a resistant strain) that’s $100 million down the tube,” Giambrone said. “It’s not a cheap process.”

The way vaccines are made hasn’t changed dramatically in 40 years, and production time literally comes down to a chicken-and-egg question: Live cultures have to be harvested in eggs, which requires a whole lot of microbe-free chickens.

More promising – and faster – vaccine production methods and treatments are being researched. But until then, expect to hear more breakthroughs on depression or dermatology. Acute diseases? Sorry, no shareholder value there.

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July 3rd, 2009
06:04 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China — Since the death of Michael Jackson, I’ve been thinking a lot about Prince.

Prince performs at the halftime show of the 2007 Superbowl.
Prince performs at the halftime show of the 2007 Superbowl.

That these two would weigh on my mind is unusual. As a teenager in the 1980s, you’d be more likely to find Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, the Cure or the Violent Femmes on my turntable.

The seminal MTV moment for me wasn’t “Thriller” but the first time the psychedelic Bo Diddley riff of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” poured out of my TV. For a small-town kid stuck in the sonic prison of Top 40 pop and country radio the music was like tuning into signals from a distant planet.

And yet this week it’s Prince I can’t get out of my head. The career arc - if not trajectory - of Michael Jackson and Prince were closely matched. Both came out with brilliant career-making albums in the early 1980s. Both were credited with crossing color lines and musical genres. Both saw sales ebb in the next decade.

Musical taste and popularity aside –Jackson outsold Prince 10-times over - their careers are a contrast in two executive traits: the perfectionist versus the workaholic.

In the 27 years since “Thriller,” Jackson released only four albums of new material. Since his breakout album “1999” the same year, Prince has released 21 new albums.

While preparing his “Thriller” follow-up, “Bad,” Jackson reportedly had this note taped on his bathroom mirror –  “100 million” –  his sales goal. (The album sold well but never approached “Thriller” status.) When Prince’s album sales were at low ebb in the 1990s, he ignored industry advice and released a triple-CD of new material. When that did poorly, he followed it with a five-CD collection of unreleased songs. That also tanked.

In recent years, the music industry model has switched from album sales to live events as a major source of revenue. On this landscape, Prince staged a remarkable comeback: a nearly $90 million tour in 2004, the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show and 21-concert residency at London’s O2 Arena. Prince often follows his two-hour concerts with small-club after-shows of improvised jazz that stretches as long as three hours.

Jackson’s 50-date stand at the O2 Arena starting this summer would have been his first tour in 12 years. The start was pushed back to allow more time for Jackson, the perfectionist, to rehearse.

Post “Thriller,” Jackson’s life was tailor-made for the tabloids: chimpanzees, Neverland, dangling a newborn out of a window. His arrest, trial and acquittal on child molestation charges got more airplay than his music before he died.

Prince was no stranger to tabloids and eccentric behavior (such as changing his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol). Yet he seems to protect his private life. When Prince’s son died in 1996 from a rare disorder shortly after his birth, the singer eschewed press and sued the nannies that sold the painful details of the death to the tabloids.

Looking at the two lives, it seems to me Michael Jackson could have learned some lessons from Prince. High goals are important for career success, but pinning “100 million” to a mirror strikes me as the wrong ambition, especially in a creative profession.

Jackson and Prince both burst onto the scene when their talent and public taste happened to coincide – that rarely can be planned. While Jackson’s career got lost in “Neverland,” Prince focused on his work despite a fickle public. Fans went and then came back again – Prince’s work ethic never changed.

As a commercial act, Michael Jackson was the undisputed “King of Pop.” But as a career model, perhaps it’s better to be a Prince.

June 1st, 2009
09:49 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China – If Rip Van Winkle awoke today from his 20-year slumber, imagine his take on this week’s events.

 He went to bed watching the bloody crackdown on democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square. He woke up to see U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, hat in hand, assuring Beijing the U.S. dollar remains strong and China’s more than $750 billion investment in U.S. treasuries is safe.

 Other eye-openers as he drank his coffee and flipped through channels:

  •  General Motors, the largest corporation in the world in 1989, filing for bankruptcy.
  • In Germany – that’s right, Germany (“East” and “West” no longer apply) – the financial savior of car maker Opel, a piece of the GM empire, is a Canadian auto parts maker and Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia. Not to be confused with the Soviet Union.
  • The shocking second-place finish of YouTube sensation Susan Boyle on "Britain’s Got Talent."

 "What happened to all the Commies?" might be Van Winkle’s first comment. His second: "What’s YouTube?"

 Van Winkle would be most surprised by what passes as global threats these days. Sure, global warming, terrorism and "rogue states" with nuclear arms are bad. But for Mr. Winkle, what an improvement it must seem over the Cold War and the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 Now a Russian bank is buying a piece of GM. China bankrolls a large part of U.S. debt. The credit crisis must seem like a campfire chorus of "Kumbaya" to Van Winkle, as one-time adversaries snuggle together and trade assets.

 Twenty years ago, the chorus of "We Are the World" would still be fresh in Van Winkle’s mind. Better than any 80s pop song, the credit crisis reveals how true that has now become.

April 22nd, 2009
12:14 PM GMT
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HONG KONG, China – You can tell a lot about the state of the economy by what passes as positive news.

A worker works on a product line at a factory in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China, February.
A worker works on a product line at a factory in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China, February.

Business across the globe has gone from bad to worse, and a new phrase has crept into the lexicon of the credit crisis in recent weeks: the "less-worse" economy.

"Getting Better (or Less Worse) All the Time" was a headline last week on "From Bad to Less Worse," said a story about the German car industry from Der Spiegel earlier this month.

"I expect things to get less worse as we proceed through the year," Richard Fisher, chief executive officer and president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, told CNN last week (although he also expects U.S. unemployment to eclipse 10 percent in 2009).  Watch Fisher comment on economy

Translation of a less-worse economy: It's still bad - much worse than a year ago, in fact - but still not as bad as the previous month or business quarter. Some recent less-worse news:

– The U.S. Federal Reserve released a report on April 15 that showed "overall economic activity contracted further or remained weak." However, five of the 12 districts across the United States that supply data to the Fed noted a "moderation in the pace of decline. Several saw signs that activity in some sectors was stabilizing at a low level."

– Exports from Japan dropped 46 percent last month, compared with March 2008. But that's less than the nearly 50 percent year-on-year drop the month

–  China's exports were down 17 percent year-on-year last month, but still $25 billion more than in February

– An Associated Press-GfK poll early this month showed that 40 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, double the percentage in October

The less-worse economy is still tumbling downhill. But when optimism is in short supply, people find hope where they can.

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