Washington Post

The federal government is the primary customer of a substantial portion of our region’s technology businesses. So it bears watching what it does. Industry participants tell me that the coming year looks promising, but even so, there are reasons for concern.

Bobbie Kilberg, president and chief executive of the local trade group, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and someone with her finger on the pulse of our region’s technology economy, is optimistic that 2018 will be a good year for the government contracting industry. She points to the Trump administration’s attention to IT modernization and innovation, focusing on what she describes as the “plumbing of administration.”

This modernization trend dovetails closely with areas where our local businesses have proven technology expertise. John Wood, CEO of Telos, a company that focuses on data security and integrity, said the federal government’s rapid adoption of cloud-based software should play to a regional strength. Michael Isman, managing director of Deloitte Consulting, said there will likely be opportunities in digital reality, blockchain data storage, and automation.

Anita Antenucci, senior managing director at the law firm Houlihan Lokey, a mergers and acquisitions expert, points directly to our local expertise in serving the specific needs of the government customer. Emerging technologies that are driving changes in the private sector are just as necessary to the government, if not more so. When the government has what Antenucci describes as “demanding and urgent” challenges, it is our local businesses that satisfy the need. She points to cybersecurity as a specific example of this phenomenon. Chuck Brooks, a nationally-recognized observer of technology trends, agreed with Antenucci, adding that “the growth in both the number and quality of cybersecurity companies in greater D.C. has been amazing.”

Owners of businesses that deliver technology solutions and products that government needs will have an additional opportunity: the potential to sell their companies to motivated purchasers. Kevin DeSanto, managing director and co-founder of KippsDeSanto and an expert on mergers and acquisitions, sees current stock market and interest rate trends as providing strong incentives for larger companies to be aggressive about purchasing smaller businesses in 2018. Antenucci strongly echoed this sentiment.

Although reasons for optimism abound, there are also reasons to fear that the pace of government purchasing might be slower than the urgency of the need for new technologies would suggest. Paul Leslie, CEO of Dovel, a government contractor with a focus on health care and life sciences, said in 2017, the pace of government purchasing of technology services was slowed by the steep learning curve of new political appointees getting comfortable with their roles. He was hopeful that with their greater comfort “we will see a release of that acquisition bottleneck this year.”

While that issue is important, the biggest challenge to our region’s government contracting industry is political risk. Wood spoke for many of his peers by observing that while the general public might be inured to it, the lack of a predictable annual budget is a “grossly inefficient way to operate” and makes it very difficult for companies that sell to the federal government. Kilberg agreed this was a serious issue, explaining further that “the serial adoption of continuing resolutions to fund our federal government rather than federal budgets has impeded the ability of businesses to plan or expand with confidence.” Continuing resolutions that extend funding for short periods, and don’t provide for funding for new programs, can be as harmful to our local economy as sequestration or budget cuts.

Based on what I learned, the prospects for government contractors in 2018 reflect both the best and worst of our region’s close relationship with the federal government. This year will provide many of our region’s most entrepreneurial businesses with the revenue opportunities to grow their businesses, while leaving our region more open than are competing regions to economic hardship resulting from political dysfunction.

While some will say that the outlook for our government contracting industry should remind us that diversifying our innovation community is an important goal, I also take it as a reminder that it is essential for those of us who care about our region’s future to remain politically engaged.

Read more

New Year’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from the prior year. So last week I asked members of the business community the biggest lesson last year had taught them.

For many, the biggest lesson involved politics in some way. Some saw this as a positive thing, pointing out that bringing people together to achieve a goal, a behavior characteristic of successful entrepreneurs, had become a part of politics. Fran Craig, chief executive of Unanet, a software product business, pointed out this similarity: “Everyone can contribute so all can win. This was true in getting out the vote and [in] moving a technology business forward.” This sentiment was shared by Shekar Narasimhan, founder of the real estate investment firm Beekman Advisors, adding that taking an entrepreneurial approach to political action means that “business people can engage in the political arena without fear and can make a difference.”

There were limits to this view, though. A number of respondents thought the polarization of our political discourse meant that business people should be careful to separate what they did personally from their business operations. Chris McAuliffe, CEO of Theragen, a medical device startup, raised the concern that if a business itself became politically active in the current political environment, it risked alienating a significant portion of its market. He advises businesses to “remain politically agnostic in favor of delivering value to your customers.”

Another theme that surfaced was the importance of continued progress in regional coordination. Bob Sweeney, managing director of the Global Cities Initiative, and an expert on our region’s economic development activities, pointed to how greater Washington region’s pursuit of Amazon’s second headquarters  highlighted our region’s ability to collaborate. Sweeney worked with representatives of eight different jurisdictions to promote our region to Amazon, and he was pleased with their ability to find commonality in how they described our region’s assets, providing what he described as a “fantastic regional story.”

Bob Buchanan, chair of the 2030 Group, a regional advocacy group, echoed the lesson learned from the Amazon bid. However, the bigger question for him was whether our region’s political leaders truly listen to the business community or just give the appearance of engagement. His concern is that the “business community does not carry much weight” with our political leaders when it comes to addressing the region’s significant transportation and housing challenges.

Some respondents focused more narrowly on their own experiences and shared lessons for other entrepreneurs. Tien Wong, chairman and CEO of Opus 8, a technology investment firm, shared that his most important lesson of the year was to “always see the positive in every situation, even when it seems to be bad,” because doing so allows more creativity in responding to challenges. Ben Foster, a serial software product entrepreneur, pointed out that even as technology allows businesses to be buried in data about customer behavior, there is still no substitute for actually talking with customers if you wanted to understand them. Jamey Harvey, CEO of Courage, a software services business, added that it was essential to “never take the most important partners in your life for granted.”

What I learned from these responses is that the unique tapestry of our region – the proximity to the federal government, an economy that stretches across multiple political jurisdictions and a diverse range of entrepreneurial opportunities – draws to it many interesting and thoughtful people who get up every morning and make great things happen. It’s why I am happy to live here and why believe that our region is one of the leading entrepreneurial communities in the world.

Happy New Year, everyone. Let’s make 2018 a year to remember for good things.

 

 

Read more

Many people see improving our roads and Metro as a shared goal that our region can rally around. I’d like to add another rallying point to this conversation: developing and expanding our region’s digital technology workforce.

Last week, the Greater Washington Partnership released a report that looked very closely at employment in digital tech industries — software development, data management and analysis, software technology engineering and IT management. Digital tech workers are among the highest paid in the country, and expanding digital tech employment drives the growth of leading regional economies.

Additionally, there are a broader range of jobs that aren’t digital tech industries but still require digital literacy. For example, many jobs in health care, law, accounting, advertising and media require comfort with digital technologies.

Taken together, digital tech jobs and digital literacy are highly important. Nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created in the United States since 2010 have required digital skills, and as digital technologies become increasingly integrated into the economy, the percentage can be expected to rise even higher.

Evaluated against these two realities — the need for digital tech workers and a broader workforce that is digitally competent — our region has a challenge.

There is good news. The report reminds us of our long history of leadership in digital tech employment. We should be proud of the role that our workforce has played in building the Internet, aerospace, wireless telecommunications, robotics, cybersecurity and bioinformatics industries, among others. Today 1 in every 16 jobs in our region is in digital tech.

But the GWP report has bad news for us, too. Although our region has one of the largest concentrations of digital tech workers in the country, we do not currently rank among the top 50 U.S. regions for job growth in this important job category. Over the past five years, the number of digital tech workers in our region has grown just 3 percent — only 8,000 net additional jobs — compared to a 12 percent national growth rate.

Moreover, it appears that our region educates digital tech workers who take their educations elsewhere when they look for work. Over the past five years, our region has produced a surplus of tech degree graduates. We had almost 14,000 digital tech degree graduates more than we had regional digital tech jobs filled. Yet at this moment, there are upward of 35,000 unfilled digital tech jobs in our region. It appears our graduates are either leaving for greener pastures, or are graduating with skills insufficient for the jobs that are offered.

Clearly something is not working in our region’s economy. The GWP report raises a number of reasons for this market disconnection. Our region’s employers as a group are not effectively signaling to educational programs the skill requirements for the digital tech jobs they have. National security requirements appear to inhibit the ability of government-reliant employers to employ applicants without bachelor or advanced degrees. Our traffic and housing issues result in quality of life concerns that encourage digital tech workers to migrate to other regions. A regional overreliance on service models for technology innovation encourage people who want to create digital tech product start-ups to go elsewhere.

I have no doubt that these are issues we can address as a region. We could identify mismatches between education and hiring by collecting and analyzing data and sharing insights. Direct involvement of our largest digital tech employers in creating educational syllabi, combined with internship and apprenticeship programs that they sponsor, could broaden opportunities for students to gain practical experience and have the right skills. For those that currently leave our region to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities elsewhere, we must give them reasons to stay by better supporting start-up business formation.

We have the resources to meet the challenge of digital tech workforce development. Let’s form a public/private partnership and get to work.

 

Read more

Despite all that has been written about the proposed tax restructuring being considered by Congress, there has not been much discussion about how it will affect the D.C. region’s technology community. This restructuring will dramatically affect our technology economy and we will need to adjust. Let me explain.

As things stand now, if the tax restructuring is adopted as proposed, a corporation’s income from operations will be treated much more favorably than individual income derived from a well-paying job. In addition, income from a passive investment in a business will be treated much more favorably than the current income derived from the owner who works in the very same business.

These changes will put many of our existing businesses and most talented individuals at a comparative disadvantage. As I have pointed out in other columns, our technology community currently skews very strongly towards owner-managed businesses that are structured to provide current income.

Simply reorganizing as a corporation will not be suitable for many of these owner-operated businesses. Many provide current income to owners, many of them running small businesses, that is used to support families. Some must be structured to provide current income to investors as well. In certain instances, licensing and government rules require that these businesses be structured as owner operated. For all of these businesses, their effective tax rates will be higher than a corporation would pay. Depending upon the size of the businesses and its profitability, this will create a tax disadvantage that could amount to hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of taxes.

On the other hand, the changes in corporate tax rates, and the favorable tax treatment for passive investing will be a huge opportunity for investors. They will benefit from better tax treatment on current income from investments as well on long-term capital gains. This favorable treatment will have two important effects. First, it will give passive investors a large new pool of capital to invest derived from the large tax subsidies they will be provided. Second, it will encourage business owners who have the option to trade current income for longer-term business value, since the tax rate on a sale of an interest in a business will be much lower than the rate on current income paid by the owner.

Another area where the proposed tax changes will have a big effect will be our universities. Changes in the tax benefits to be gained from research and development may shrink funds available for sponsored research. Changes in the tax treatment of research fellowships will discourage students who don’t otherwise have the ability to pay for their graduate degrees.

Our highly paid workforce will also see changes in their tax bills, due to changes in the tax deductibility of local and state taxes and mortgage interest. These changes will adversely affect our region’s ability to attract and retain highly paid technical talent when compared to competing regions. The higher pay our region’s employers can offer will become less appealing, if it results in higher taxes and participation in a housing market where valuations are constrained or falling due to the loss of current tax benefits for owners. Transportation, education and infrastructure challenges in our region will also become more expensive to solve, if they require additional local taxes to finance improvements that are doubly taxed.

Taken as a whole, our region is facing a large adjustment if the tax restructuring occurs. How adversely we are affected will be driven by whether we can make up for the negative aspects by creating enough new businesses that will be attractive to investors and corporate buyers. For many years, I have argued that our region’s future requires that we change the model we use for technology-based business creation. That need is now even more immediate.

It is ironic that many of the people who most avidly support these likely tax changes are the same people who have consistently stated that “government shouldn’t pick winners or losers.” Hard to see the revision of the tax code as anything other than that.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t adapt to the new rulebook and make our own future.

 

 

 

 

 

Read more

For many people, last week was the moment when Bitcoin registered as something they should know about, as it saw a sky-high boost in value.

Bitcoin is a currency. Society uses standardized currency to exchange things of value. When you sell something, you can either trade for some other good or service the buyer is selling, or you can receive currency – in other words, money – that you can then use to buy something from a different seller. There is nothing magical about a currency – it could literally be anything – provided everyone in a society agrees to accept it as such. 

Currency must have some consistency in its per unit value. If currency does not have a clear value, it is hard to buy things with it; the seller will always want more while the buyer says “only this much.” Additionally, a currency has to maintain its value over time, since the holder may not want to spend it right away. Currency only has value if we all believe it has value. 

This truth has made people uncomfortable for generations. History has shown governments have often forced its citizens to use a currency that is not desirable as a store of value, or undermined its value by unilaterally changing the value per unit of its currency (a devaluation), or creating large budget deficits that it finances by unilaterally creating more currency (inflation). This is why you often hear central bankers talk about inflation as a bad thing – they are afraid that an erosion in the value per unit of a currency will make it less desirable. It’s also why nations who have currencies that are not as stable will often put in place “exchange controls” which make its citizens unable to use other currencies that might be more stable or desirable.  

Bitcoin’s underlying operational structure – the blockchain transaction ledger system that supports it – is not subject to government scrutiny or regulation. Bitcoin is thus incredibly useful for people who want to hide their transactions and money from governments. But, it’s also attractive to people who fear government actions that could cause a devaluation of the currency they are currently using.  

Right now, people are taken with the rapid rise of the price of Bitcoin as a financial phenomenon. I think that they should be focusing on two things that are much more significant. The first is that much of the demand for Bitcoin is coming from nations that have exchange controls where citizens are using the anonymity of the Bitcoin market structure to avoid these controls.  

The second, which concerns me much more as a U.S. business person, is that the people are signaling that they think that it is worth much more than the U.S. dollars they are using to purchase the Bitcoin. As Congress is about to explode the U.S. budget deficit through some very ill-advised tax cuts, they should take note of this market signal. 

Since World War II, the U.S. dollar has been the primary international currency. This has benefited us tremendously. More than any other factor, this primacy has allowed our country to have low borrowing rates, low inflation and low energy costs. If the U.S. dollar loses its attractiveness because society finds a preferable currency for exchange (whether it is Bitcoin or any other currency) – the implications for the U.S. economy are grave: higher interest rates, higher inflation, higher energy costs and lack of price stability. 

History is littered with governments that eroded the value of their currency through financial imprudence. Our nation is not immune from this fact. If international investors, and our own citizens, lose confidence in the U.S. dollar we will pay dearly. Bitcoin’s rise could be a sign of trouble to come.  

That’s why it should matter to you. 

Read more

Last week, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission announced his intention to eliminate net neutrality in furtherance of the White House’s conviction that Internet access should be an unregulated, private business activity. Many Americans who aren’t tech savvy don’t see this as a big deal. To the contrary, it is a big deal. Their ability to participate in society and the economy is about to get hurt.

To illustrate why this is so, let me analogize to a public benefit that all Americans value: access to electricity.

Imagine that access to electricity was handled the same way that access to the Internet will be under the FCC’s approach. Would you be happy with a situation where your ability to obtain electricity was limited to a single provider who could charge you whatever they wished, offer you whatever service level they thought appropriate, and limit your choice of alternatives?

We all know that electricity comes into your home through a single line owned by an electric company. Because of government regulations and investment, access to electricity is substantially universal around the United States. Innovative companies that provide electricity in new ways can get access to consumers and businesses. Profit is balanced against consumer access.

This didn’t happen by accident. The balancing of the interests of industry and society occurred because in the 20th century a broad societal consensus was reached. Electricity is essential to modern life, and all Americans should have fair access to it. Depending upon the circumstances, sometimes electricity was provided by government entities, sometimes by for-profit companies, and sometimes by cooperatives. Power produced by innovative and cost-efficient producers, such as solar, had to be carried over other companies’ transmission lines so it could reach consumers. The ability of the owners of those transmission lines to maximize profit was balanced against the social good that electricity provided to all.

The analogies to access to the Internet are striking. There are many parts of the United States where access to the Internet is not achievable solely on a for-profit basis, because the population density is too low, the geography too challenging, or the residents too poor. Many Americans with access are finding that they are not able to pay ever-increasing prices. Businesses grow ever more reliant on the Internet. School systems assume that their students have access at home. More and more of the information our citizens need to make informed decisions is delivered over the Internet.

In the second decade of the 21st century, it is becoming abundantly clear that access to the Internet is essential for our nation to grow and our citizens to participate in its abundance. The proposed changes to net neutrality suggest the Trump administration and many in Congress put their faith in the free market to provide the Internet access all Americans must have. Even though I am an investor and businessman, this is a circumstance where I think that this faith is misplaced. Why would for-profit Internet access businesses ever provide services or make investment decisions that aren’t based solely on maximizing profit?

Let’s not fool ourselves for the sake of adherence to ideology. Without some the introduction of other considerations imposed by regulation or government action, the Internet providers will not have any reason to modify their pursuit of maximum profits or provide uneconomic services. They are public companies, not social enterprises. But treating Internet access as a luxury and not a basic right is unfair to our citizens, to our business community, and ultimately to the country as a whole.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, our political leaders recognized that access to electricity required a balancing of commercial and social interests. In light of how essential access to the Internet is to the 21st century citizen, shouldn’t there be a similar balancing?

 

Read more

I regularly hear people complain that our region lacks venture capital. Last week I asked members of our entrepreneurial community about this perceived funding gap and what they thought we should do about it.

The first thing I learned was that the venture capital funding gap was most profoundly felt when a start-up needed capital to accelerate its climb towards success, what I’ll call “acceleration capital.” The entrepreneurs pointed to many start-ups successfully finding their initial risk capital from friends and families, or smaller venture funds, and raising the first $250,000 to $1 million necessary to get started. They also reminded me of the many innovative companies in our region that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital to fund business expansion. They all agreed acceleration venture capital was the hardest to find.

Some thought our start-ups were not perceived as compelling in comparison to those in other regions, so that acceleration capital went elsewhere. Our region didn’t promote itself well, didn’t have a culture of risk taking, or suffered from a heavy focus on service-business models, were each identified by entrepreneurs as potential causes of this competitive disadvantage.

Others didn’t see it as an issue relating to our supply of compelling companies. Ed Barrientos, a long-time angel investor and chief executive of Brazen Technologies, told me he felt “the number of viable start-ups has been relatively constant for the last 15 years.” He thought that the perceived funding void was just a function of “signal to noise” because more companies were starting here than previously, so that there were more businesses competing for the same pool of capital.

Entrepreneurs who had been investors provided the perspective that the acceleration funding gap was a national problem. Gene Riechers, a successful venture investor and former technology executive, pointed to a national consolidation of the venture industry into a smaller number of large funds. This consolidation has forced the venture industry to concentrate on deals that can put a large amount of capital to work quickly – making acceleration deals burdensome and unattractive.

Riechers cautioned against waiting for new VC funds to be raised that would focus on acceleration capital because the industry trends that led to consolidation were likely to continue for a number of years. His advice was to look for acceleration capital elsewhere.

But where?

A few entrepreneurs thought that the region’s wealthy would be a good place to start. Ben Foster, a business mentor and serial entrepreneur, felt that a regional effort in educating local wealth managers and millionaires on the investment opportunities that start-ups present could create new sources of acceleration capital.

Others thought that greater integration with larger regional businesses was the best path – customer revenue could provide growth funding. An example was James Quigley, founder of GoCanvas, an app technology company, who would like to see the business community “engage in the ecosystem and invest.”

Naturally, people raised the role of government in solving the problem, although not as a direct investor. Mirza Baig, a partner in Aldrich Capital and an investor in start-ups, thought state governments should look to trigger acceleration venture capital through economic and tax incentives. Others pointed to the federal government as a source of research-and-development funding that could be leveraged to accelerate high tech companies.

A few also asked whether we should be worrying about venture capital funding to fill this void at all. Mary Tucker, chief executive of UPIC Health, a health care start-up, pointed to the growing number of investors looking to make socially impactful investments, adding that “perhaps the answer is not to focus on the doughnut hole – I’m squarely in it right now – but rather expand and build on social VCs in the region.”

Clearly, we have an issue that is unlikely to go away. I think it’s time to take an entrepreneur’s approach to solving the problem. We’ve identified some potential solutions. Let’s pick one and get started.

 

 

 

 

Read more

Last week I shared some insights about how leaders rise out of groups and how groups react to bad leadership. A number of people asked me whether I thought the same rules applied to situations where a leader was imposed from above. To gain some insight I asked a local expert. 

Mary Abbajay, chief executive of the Careerstone Group, specializes in organizational change. In connection with an upcoming book, she has been looking at the skills required for followers to successfully manage relationships with leaders they don’t pick. 

Abbajay finds commonality whether a leader rises or is imposed. Followers must be an active participant in the relationship with a leader.  People who are passive and just do what they are told rapidly find themselves disillusioned.

Followers need to create a positive relationship with their leaders. They shouldn’t rely on leaders to do right by them.  nstead they need to manage upward through a conscious and deliberate effort to communicate to those above you in the chain of command.   

This is not an easy thing to do.   

Not every message from a subordinate will be met with openness. Much depends on the willingness of a leader to hear contrary viewpoints. Because it can be a risky proposition to manage upward, Abbajay recommends that followers have reasonable expectations for what speaking up can accomplish.   

When leaders do not rise from a group, their leadership likely occurred through external achievements or by pleasing someone other than the group members. This makes it less likely that the leader will be beholden to the group and more likely followers will have to adapt to the leader’s behavior traits. Successful people are particularly hard to change because they generally attribute their success to their dominant personality traits, so they will be slow to change unless they have to.

In these situations, it is best to look for incremental changes. Because the grant of authority in an imposed leader is one way – authority of the leader over the followers – the delegation of authority that occurs when leaders emerge from a group does not exist. This means that changing leadership behavior for an imposed leader is more in the nature of a negotiation.

To change the behavior of imposed leaders, followers must communicate clear benefits to the leader to be gained by changing his behavior. Additionally, responsible followers then must ask whether they are willing to do their part. Followers need to be self-critical. Why are they asking a leader to change, and what will they do in response? Followers are obligated to speak up and follow through.   

Assuming that the leader is open to input, and the followers are willing to do their part, an effective bond can be built. Even in the case of an imposed leader, the best leaders and followers develop a sense of shared responsibility. In a way, the best imposed leaders delegate some of their authority to the group, even when they don’t have to. Where leaders and followers become tightly connected and develop a bi-directional relationship, organizations are healthy and the morale of followers is high.

The lesson is clear: effective leadership, however it arises, is a shared responsibility. Even a boss imposed from above is more likely to be effective by positively engaging with her followers.  

As I tend to, when looking at these issues I ask whether these lessons for business are equally true for politics. When it comes to leaders imposed from above, there is one big difference. In business, if followers determine they can’t work with a boss, the most likely remedy is to change jobs.  

In politics, if you don’t like your leaders, you vote them out of office.

 

 

 

 

Read more

In business and politics, we most often act as part of a group. Understanding group dynamics and its relationship to leadership is a topic very much on my mind these days. Let me explain why. 

As an innovation expert and educator, I spend a lot of time working with groups and teaching group behavior. I have found certain consistent behaviors among the hundreds of groups I have instructed or worked with over the years. 

In the United States, when a group does not have a person designated as leader by virtue of title or position, group members have a very strong bias towards adopting majority rule as their decision-making paradigm. I consistently see this regardless of the group members’ age, income, education or other demographic attributes. Absent a clear leader, group members most often consult with each other and then assemble a majority vote to support a decision. 

Interestingly, while groups are driven to find common ground and make decisions through majority rule, they are also very willing to be led. But only if they are comfortable with who leads them. Left to their own to act, groups find their leaders through questioning or conduct to identify special expertise, a job title that carries authority, or other indicia of authority. Then, they follow the leaders they choose. 

Understanding the contradictory impulses of majority rule and a willingness to be led is essential for effective leadership. The grant of leadership is always contingent. Groups may be willing to be led, but only if the leaders consistently demonstrate that they are competent to lead, that their decision making is sound and that they give credence to the opinions of those whom they lead. 

What happens when a leader proves not to be worthy of continued leadership? Groups and their members become frustrated and look to reassert their power to decide. And if the leader does not cede authority back to the group or to a leader the group prefers, the group gets more frustrated.   

I’m sure you’ve experienced this group dynamic for yourself. Perhaps it was when a boss gave a poorly qualified relative a management job over more qualified non-family members. Or, when a team is adversely affected by a team captain that doesn’t challenge management or the refs on behalf of the players. It could have been when a chief executive turns out to be sexually harassing employees, while espousing a corporate culture of inclusion. In each case, there was a group that experienced the delegation of authority and the frustration and anger that followed when the leader proved unworthy of following.  

Everyone knows that his or her opinion matters. Every group expects deference and acknowledgement from its leaders.   

This is something every business leader must understand to be successful. The best business leaders take the time to remain in touch with their employees through 360-degree reviews, strategic planning, organization retreats, employee training and development and many other means. Indeed, the entirety of best practices in management and leadership rests on understanding the needs of the group and on individuals participating in forming the group consensus. 

Which brings me to the world of politics and policy. Too many political leaders seem to have forgotten that they owe their leadership roles to the individuals and groups that delegated authority to them. They no longer treat them as if their opinions matter. A business leader that ignores the well-being of his employees would surely be fired. Why shouldn’t political leaders be evaluated by the same standard?    

Don’t let the noise of current events confuse or dissuade you. Leadership is not taken. It is earned. No one should be a leader without honoring that fundamental truth. What is true in business should also be true for politics.  

 

 

Read more

I have been wondering recently whether the current strength of the stock markets is attributable to expectations of tax cuts. I decided this week to check in with local financial market experts and find out.  

They uniformly told me that the biggest reason for the rise in the equity markets is economic fundamentals. For example, Anne McCabe Triana, president and CEO of the Reston wealth management firm Curo Private Wealth, told me “stock prices are definitely elevated,” but there were objective facts supporting valuations. The equity market was not a bubble, and reflected instead “low interest rates and an increasingly positive business environment.” Brad Smith, chief investment officer at MTX Wealth Management in Reston, pointed to continued corporate earnings growth and low unemployment as additional contributing factors. 

I did hear from these experts that the possibility of federal tax cuts was contributing to some recent acceleration in stock market gains. John Devine, partner and strategic advisor at Brown Advisory, thought that “optimism about tax cuts” was reflected in the market, but that “it is always hard to pinpoint what drives the market in the short term.” Triana echoed this point and also highlighted that companies likely to benefit from tax cuts were getting a recent valuation boost in the market. 

In fact, the biggest effect of the tax cut anticipation may be in the valuation of smaller public companies. Barry Glassman, president of Glassman Wealth Services, said the possibility of tax cuts was having a disproportionately positive effect on these businesses, with their valuation as a group increasing 11 percent in the last month alone, a valuation change significantly higher than that of larger companies.

Since the expectation of tax cuts is providing a boost to some companies’ market value, this raises the question of what happens if tax cuts don’t happen.  Not surprisingly, these financial experts who see the underlying economic factors as the primary driver of the market don’t see the failure of tax cuts to materialize as likely to cause a lasting downtown in valuations. The absence of tax cuts would be the sort of unexpected news that can cause markets to dip in the short term, but the underlying economy is what drives the long-term trend. And, those objective facts support ongoing growth in the value of equities.  

But, what happens if the proposed tax cuts occur?  There was agreement among those that I spoke with that the stock markets would get an upward valuation boost. How much was difficult to predict, since the current valuations have already built in the expectation of tax cuts. For them the biggest determinant for future growth would be the objective facts of the underlying economy.  

This is where many of these experts expressed concern. Tax cuts and their accompanying changes in the federal debt raised significant risk of higher inflation and higher interest rates. For example, Glassman pointed out that inflation could occur either because the tax cuts accelerate wage growth through new hiring, or through a rapid increase of federal deficits.

Inflation causes higher interest rates, which adversely affect private borrowers and federal expenditures on debt service. Inflation will also erode the value of the U.S. dollar, which will make imports and oil more expensive. Hard to imagine that this is a policy choice to make if you are a President trying to promote manufacturing jobs, exports and traditional energy industries. 

This is where many of these experts expressed concern. Tax cuts and their accompanying changes in the federal debt raised significant risk of higher inflation and higher interest rates. For example, Glassman pointed out that inflation could occur either because the tax cuts accelerate wage growth through new hiring, or through a rapid increase of federal deficits.

Inflation causes higher interest rates, which adversely affect private borrowers and federal expenditures on debt service. Inflation will also erode the value of the U.S. dollar, which will make imports and oil more expensive. Hard to imagine that this is a policy choice to make if you are a President trying to promote manufacturing jobs, exports and traditional energy industries. 

For years Republicans have been saying they believe in free markets. The financial markets are clearly saying that tax cuts are not necessary. Who is telling them that they are?  

 

Read more