Cost Benefit Analysis

What has the end of the world got to do with business strategy?

Published on: 20 May 2011

Mr Harold Camping, an 89 year old evangelist from America predicts that tomorrow Jesus Christ will return to earth and true followers will be swept up, or in his words “raptured”, to heaven.

He predicts that giant earthquakes will sweep across the world to mark the start of the destruction of the earth and with the exception of the 200 million people that will have been raptured to heaven the rest of the world’s population will perish during the earth’s destruction.

Now, with a little bit of luck you’re sat at your desk with a cup of coffee reading this and the world didn’t come to an end on Saturday.

There’s a nice business strategy example in this though and it also involves a number of pet dogs and cats…

Some of the better known business strategy models include:

The Rational Model – the “original” strategic planning model with 3 clear steps of Analysis – Choice – Implementation.

The Emergent Model – made famous by Mintzberg’s analysis of Honda’s entry to the US motor bike market.

Logical Incrementalism – small regular changes to the strategic approach.

And then there is the concept of “Freewheeling Opportunism”. This is the situation where an organisation doesn’t have a formal plan but takes advantage of opportunities as and when they arise.

In a classic freewheeling opportunism move an American entrepreneur has just set up Eternal Earth-bound pets. This business offers a service to those individuals with pets who believe that they will be raptured tomorrow.

Unfortunately the rapture process highlighted by Mr Camping doesn’t allow people to take their pets. Eternal Earth-bound pets has taken quick advantage of this by offering a service to look after the pets after their owner has been raptured.

As at the time of writing, more than 250 clients have paid $135 for their pets to be looked after after the rapture.

Eternal Earth-Bound Pet’s tag line on their website is:

The next best thing to pet salvation in a Post Rapture World

Eternal Earth-bound pets has a no refunds policy if the end of the world doesn’t happen…

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Are they really going to get their money’s worth for $8.5 billion?

Published on: 16 May 2011

What was founded 8 years ago by 2 entrepreneurs and was last week bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion?

Little did Swedish entrepreneur Niklas Zennstrom and his Danish colleague Janus Friis realise that the Skype product they introduced back in 2003 would be worth a mighty $8.5 billion 8 years later.

Skype, whose name comes from the abbreviation of the initial project name of “Sky peer-to-peer” has turned into the most successful online voice and video phone service.

It has over 650m users with the vast majority of users only use the free call facilities.

Even allowing for its success in terms of the numbers that use it, it’s still a pretty hefty amount that Microsoft paid for it.

If you look at the history of the company you’ll see that Zennstrom and Friis founded it in 2003, it was then purchased by eBay for $3.1 billion in 2005 in the anticipation that it would be integrated into their online auction site to help people negotiate over their purchases.

This wasn’t a huge success and eBay cut their losses when they sold it 4 years later to a group of investors with the company valued at $2.75 billion.

The investors that bought it from eBay though have done pretty well.

With Skype being valued at $2.75 billion in 2009 here we are 2 years later with Microsoft buying it for $8.5 billion – a pretty healthy return of approximately 300% over a couple of years.

If you look at the figures behind Skype then some people will argue that Microsoft have paid over the odds for Skype.

In summary, the latest reported annual figures for Skype are:

Sales: $860 million

Profit (eh, actually it’s a loss): ($7 million)

Amount Microsoft paid for it: $8.5 billion (or $ 8,500 million)

So, Microsoft paid $8,500 million for a company whose most recent reported annual results showed a loss of $7 million.

These figures clearly show that Microsoft are hoping to create a lot of value from the acquisition of Skype and possible integrations discussed include using Skype within Microsoft Outlook and their computer game XBox.

This is a big amount of money to recover though and only time will tell whether the largest acquisition in Microsoft’s history will turn out to be a good call or not.

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Just how many mines are there in London and Toronto?

Published on: 09 Feb 2011

It’s Valentine’s Day next Monday and love appears to be in the air as far as stock exchanges are concerned.

Last year, the Australian and Singaporean stock exchanges announced plans to merge.

Earlier today the London Stock Exchange and Toronto Stock Exchange announced that they had formally agreed to merge and Deutsche Borse and NYSE Euronext, two of the world’s largest stock exchange operators, have now just disclosed that they are in “advanced merger discussions”.

Wow – it’s all happening on the exchanges.

If you look at the transatlantic merger between the London and Toronto exchanges then the merger has been valued at an impressive £5.5 billion.

It has been presented very much as a “merger of equals” and not a takeover (although the London Stock Exchange shareholders will get 55% of the newly created entity).

The new entity will have its headquarters in both London and Toronto and whilst some people may say that having two headquarters is a bit of a “cop out”, it does avoid the accusation that one organisation has taken over the other.

There will of course be an interesting internal discussion about where THE boardroom will be located. The more likely situation though is that they will have two boardrooms, one in London and one in Toronto.

Either way the new enlarged entity will certainly become a dominant player. It will have over 6,700 listings and will become the largest exchange in terms of companies traded with an aggregate market capitalisation of approximately £3.7 trillion.

Mining companies will also no doubt be interested as the Toronto exchange claims to be the world’s leading resources market and approximately a third of the companies in the FTSE 100 Index (the 100 largest companies on the London Stock Exchange) are from the mining and energy sectors.

The proposed benefits of the merger include anticipated annual savings of £35 million by the second year of the merger.

Whether they could save more by only having the one boardroom table is a separate discussion point.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” but will there be such a thing as a free drink or cheap drink in the future?

Published on: 30 Aug 2010

Binge drinking in the UK is a major problem. City centres at the weekend can be full of people that are literally trying to drink as much as possible in as short a period of time. Violence and health issues often ensue.

As well as the disturbances to local residents there are also the costs both health-wise to the drinkers and financially to police forces, hospitals and society at large arising as a result of this binge drinking.

As a potential solution to this problem, the government is currently investigating whether to ban free or cheap drink promotions. One of the ideas being discussed is whether to make it illegal to sell alcohol below cost price. In other words to prevent businesses offering “loss leaders” on drinks so as to encourage higher spending at a later date.

If you’re an accountant, and assuming you’re not reading this in the middle of an actual binge drinking session yourself, this raises an interesting discussion on what exactly is meant by “below cost” and in particular the term “cost”.

The major alcoholic drinks manufacturers produce a range of drinks. Diageo for example produce drinks as varied as Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky and the famous Irish stout Guinness.

Identifying the cost of each particular drink would be challenging exercise. Whilst they no doubt have sophisticated management accounts which allocate overheads and indirect costs in certain ways, there would be a clear debate as to which was the “correct” allocation of these costs.

Apportioning overheads such as head office costs, R&D and marketing to individual products would result in a certain amount of flexibility in terms of identifying the cost figure to use for “below cost” purposes.

One solution to this inherent problem of identifying the cost of individual products has been proposed and that is setting the minimum cost of the drinks as equivalent to the duty and VAT that needs to be paid on the particular drinks.

So, the next time you’re out having a quiet drink with some non finance friends feel free to start a discussion about how much each of your drinks cost to make. You can then explain about the various possible methods of allocating indirect costs. Then again, talking about management accounting cost allocation whilst out with your friends may result in your  non finance friends starting a binge drinking session themselves…

Forget the sunshine, the beaches and the fantastic food – if you live in Australia sell your house and move to America…

Published on: 11 Aug 2010

Asset valuation is a tricky business.  It is, however, a skill that accountants are often commissioned to use.  It’s also a useful one to have when making personal decisions, such as whether to buy a home or not.

Some people would argue that a major driver of the current economic slump in many countries is the collapse of house prices.

In a number of countries, house price bubbles were enormous.  There are lots of motivations for buying a home; principally as a place to live, a store of value for the future; certainty come retirement (when the mortgage is paid off so housing costs drop only to be maintenance).

Another motive has been speculation.  In my opinion, speculation in house prices is a bad thing, since it drives up house prices.  This means that new houses are not affordable for the young.  The more that house prices go up, the greater the transfer of wealth from the economically active young to the less economically active old.

Unsustainably high house prices cause uncertainty in an economy and when a crash eventually happens, it can cause people to be locked into homes with loans greater than the value of the asset (negative equity).  As well as a source of human misery, negative equity reduces labour mobility, which is bad for the economy as whole.

The Economist newspaper tracks house prices in different countries, using a method based on rental yields.  The assumption here is that rental markets react more readily to underlying supply and demand conditions.  If one had $500,000 to invest, would one use it to buy a house which could then be rented out, or buy other investments such as bonds?  If the rental yield (rent / initial value x 100) is less than the yield on bonds, then the house price is overvalued.  It’s a simple enough methodology that can give some revealing results.

A couple of years ago, this analysis suggested that UK property prices were 35% overvalued.  A crash followed.  There have been property crashes and recession in many countries where speculation is a big motive to buy property.  The alarming thing is that a recent analysis (Economist 10 July, page 75) revealed that properties are under and overvalued in certain countries:

UK: 33.8% overvalued (following a hard-to-explain recovery in house prices)
USA: 6.5% undervalued
Spain: 50.4% overvalued
Australia: 61.1% overvalued
Germany: 14.5% undervalued
Ireland: 15.7% overvalued.

This may be poor news indeed for the economy of countries with very overvalued property.  With these sorts of valuations, mortgages may become unaffordable the moment that interest rates rise to above the rock bottom levels we have at the moment.  This could release very big downward forces in the economy and dampen out any economic recovery.

On the plus side, the USA looks to have reacted quickly, albeit brutally, to the changed economic circumstances and it might be a good time to sell your home in Australia (cash out your investment while it’s arguably overvalued) and buy somewhere in America.  If you can get a visa.  Oh, and a mortgage!

Not-for-profit organisations face several challenges.

Published on: 01 Aug 2009

I had to recently go into hospital for a minor operation on my knee. The nurses and doctors were fantastic there and thankfully everything is now fine with my knee.

The hospital I was in was a classic not-for-profit (NFP) organization and during my time there it really made me appreciate the challenges that NFPs face when setting objectives.

Hospitals have a significant number of stakeholders with a high level of interest. Patients like me are stakeholders with an obvious high level of interest in matters. Other local individuals who are not patients are also interested in case at some stage they need to use the hospital. The doctors, nurses and admin staff are also stakeholders with a keen interest in the activities and the government is another stakeholder interested in the hospital.

In summary, NFPs are different from most other organizations when it comes to stakeholders in that there tends to be a wider range of stakeholders with a high interest in a NFP organization than compared with other organizations.

Another issue that occurred to me during my stay was that there are a number of objectives that the hospital needs to balance. Two obvious ones are the quality of care given to a patient when he’s in the hospital versus treating more patients.

A final area I thought about was the classic finance term of Cost Benefit Analysis. Costs within hospitals are easy to measure but the benefits can be inherently difficult to measure. For example, how would they measure the benefit of reducing the waiting time for a knee operation by one month or 6 months?

You are not necessarily expected to be able to provide all the answers to the challenges of running a hospital in the exam but it is important to have an understanding of the challenges that a NFP organization faces when running its business.

The ExP Group