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What Makes U.S. Healthcare Different?

We in the U.S. spend a lot on healthcare. Whether expressed as the cost per service, the cost per person or as a percentage of the gross domestic product, the high cost of healthcare is well documented. While solutions to this situation have been suggested for many years, the expensive reality continues.

Is it possible that unique characteristics of the American healthcare environment create special challenges? This article discusses several unique aspects.

Geographic Diversity

The U.S. is a diverse country with population centers scattered throughout the country. The mean center of population currently lies in Missouri.

As the inset map shows, this is east and south of the geographic center of the U.S. The major population centers in the eastern half of the country pull it east. The major population centers in the south pull it south. More than 10% of the population is in one major southwestern state, California. Major metropolitan areas can be found throughout the country: San Francisco and Los Angeles in the Southwest, Dallas and Houston in the south Midwest, Chicago in the upper Midwest, Boston and New York in the northeastern part of the country, Atlanta and Miami in the Southeast. Why is this important?

More than 90% of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border. The oft-touted Canadian system serves a population that is concentrated in a thin band of land. In a concentrated environment, it is possible to have a more efficient allocation of resources. In the Canadian provinces with significant rural populations (e.g., Alberta and Saskatchewan) the provinces use regional health authorities to take responsibility.

See also: A Road Map for Health Insurance  

American Definition of Quality

Quality is difficult to universally define. Many times people say, “I know it when I see it” or, more importantly “I know it when I don’t see it.” Over the past 15 to 20 years, quality has been objectively defined, to the point that it is consistently measured across health systems. One of the best definitions of quality is “providing the right service, at the right time, to the right patient as efficiently as possible.” The American definition of quality usually includes a high degree of access and a significant sense of urgency.

Other countries do not see waiting as a deterioration in quality. In fact, queuing, or waiting lines, are accepted. The American ideal is getting healthcare now, not tomorrow, not next week or next year. Most Americans see waiting as a reduction in quality. Health systems that require pre-authorization or approval of referrals are frequently viewed as substandard because those systems create barriers that patients have to work through. In countries with socialized healthcare systems, patients regularly have to wait. Much of this wait is associated with fiscal limits within the system restricting the available resources. In the U.S., the excess capacity in the system almost always provides an adequate supply of healthcare resources, so the required waiting time is very limited.

The waiting line is caused by either quotas or specific budgets for specific procedures, producing a rigid form of rationing. In the U.S., waiting occurs when the physician was booked or the schedule was full. This queue is not a budget-driven constraint.

The U.S. healthcare system is recognized as one of the highest-quality in the world (e.g., high cancer screening rates). Although the quality of care is generally quite high, some of the measured outcomes suggest that the U.S. health system is not advancing as much as would be hoped. One example is the efforts to eliminate breast cancer. Screening for breast cancer is higher than it has ever been, but so is the rate of breast cancer. Perhaps improved detection has identified more cases.

Freedom of Choice

Americans value freedom of choice; they like to make decisions for themselves. Americans value going where they want to get care, choosing who they want to provide that care, oftentimes deciding what care they want and getting it when they want to get it. This has resulted in broader networks offering more choices than needed. This has resulted in higher-than-necessary utilization of specific services, including new technology. The need for freedom of choice has limited the effectiveness of care management programs. Freedom of choice combined with limited cost sharing results in expensive healthcare. One unfortunate consequence is the negative opinion that develops regarding any administrative process that limits freedom of choice. Programs that focus on limiting medically unnecessary care are accused of disrupting the physician/patient relationship.

Healthcare Resource Planning

In most states, there is very limited overall resource planning. At various times, some states have implemented certificate of need programs for specific types of providers. But, for the most part, there are no formal limits to the number of providers or types of providers. In most urban markets, there is an oversupply of providers. Rural markets are often plagued with a shortage. Some markets are so desperate for providers that significant compensation is offered to lure them.

Why is this important? Healthcare tends to be a market that fails to respond to traditional supply and demand economics. In the general economy, the greater the supply, the lesser the demand and the lower the prices. In healthcare, the higher the supply, the greater the induced demand and the continuation of higher prices. Informal studies suggest that utilization levels positively correlate with supply.

One of the reasons for escalating costs is the continued oversupply of healthcare providers. One of the best examples of effective resource planning is the approach implemented by Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. Kaiser carefully plans the supply of professional services based on a long-established staffing model. As the associated membership grows, they move from a combination of “nearby owned facilities” and “rented facilities” to “owned facilities.” Kaiser carefully manages the strategic transition to a “wholly owned delivery system” and manages the resources based on membership growth. Kaiser avoids excess capacity and maintains a cost-effective delivery system.

Countries with socialized healthcare systems are much more involved with resource planning than the U.S. The competitive nature of healthcare in the U.S. is much more focused on capturing market share than defining appropriate resources for a region. Less effective resource planning drives up the cost of care.

Wide Variations in Efficiency

The efficiency of regional healthcare systems varies significantly from one geographic market to another. Delivery system care patterns have emerged based on local needs, regional care practices and the extent of provider involvement in the financing of care. Markets like Portland, OR, have developed extremely efficient in-patient care patterns with a larger portion of their healthcare dollar going to professional providers. Other markets have emerged at the same time with much less efficient patterns. In-patient utilization patterns vary by more than 35% to 45%. Analyses show no clinical rationale to support the observed variation. The U.S. is one of the few countries exhibiting this level of variation. Experts generally concur that much of this variation is caused by personal physician preference.

Tax-Sheltered Benefits

The current tax-sheltered employee benefit approach emerged during the post-WWII era where employers were seeking creative ways to attract, hire and keep employees. The tax law enabled employers to write off the cost of benefits and provide their employees a valuable tax-sheltered employee benefit. The tax law provides this favorable status only to employer-sponsored programs. Individual health insurance benefit programs do not enjoy this same tax advantage. Tax reform efforts have considered eliminating this difference. Self-funded employer-sponsored benefit programs, including those involving labor union negotiations (i.e., Taft -Hartley plans) are also tax-advantaged.

This is an important issue when discussing transitions to alternative systems. What role will employers play? What about programs negotiated by labor unions? How will we unravel the tax-advantaged funding of healthcare costs by the employer?

Diverse Insurance and Claims Administration

The employee health benefit marketplace has grown significantly with a large variety of organizations targeting the effective administration of such programs. Merger/acquisition activity has transformed the marketplace into a handful of major players and a large number of regional players. Third party administrators (TPAs) are active in the market supporting the self-funded and self-administered benefit programs. The federal government provides government-sponsored coverage for the elderly and disabled (Medicare) and for beneficiaries in lower socio-economic levels (Medicaid). Many of these programs outsource the administration and risk taking to the private sector. Healthcare administration in the U.S. includes a significant private sector involvement. There is little uniformity between different health plans. There are limited standards to streamline the process.

Public/Private Sector Cost Shift

The U.S. healthcare system incorporates a significant cost shift between the government-sponsored programs and the private sector programs. The private sector pays a much higher amount for identical services than the public sector. Within the private sector, each carrier/health plan is required to negotiate payment rates, which can vary substantially from one carrier to the next. The variability in reimbursement increases administrative costs for both the providers and the health plans or administrators.

See also: Healthcare Debate Misses Key Point  

Hesitancy to Declare Healthcare a Human Rights Issue

In the U.S., there has been a hesitancy to declare healthcare a human rights issue. In Canada, the Canada Health Care Act defines five principles:

    • Public Administration: All administration of provincial health insurance must be carried out by a public authority on a non-profit basis.
    • Comprehensiveness: All necessary health services, including hospitals, physicians and surgical dentists, must be insured.
    • Universality: All insured residents are entitled to the same level of healthcare.
    • Portability: A resident who moves to a different province or territory is still entitled to coverage from the home province during a minimum waiting period. This also applies to residents who leave the country.
    • Accessibility: All insured persons have reasonable access to healthcare facilities. In addition, all physicians, hospitals, etc., must be provided reasonable compensation for the services they provide.

A quick internet review will show considerable discussion defending both opinions: It is a right, or it isn’t a right. Dominant emerging thought focuses on what is called Triple Aim: a strong focus on quality and customer satisfaction, improving the population’s health status and reducing costs of care. They are admirable goals, but all require the definition or identification of a population. Who is the population? Is it everyone? Is it just the segment I am concerned about?

Recent healthcare reform efforts have focused on minimizing uninsured, which was a step toward universality. Ironically, the American’s demand for freedom of choice also includes freedom from being told that they must buy insurance and what kind of care they should pay for.


These nine issues provide an initial list of unique characteristics of the U.S. healthcare system. When working toward solutions to resolving the high cost of care, these issues must be considered. This is not an exhaustive list but does begin to highlight what makes American healthcare different.

Insuring What You Want, When You Want

DIAmond Award winner Trōv is one of the most widely referred to cases when speaking about disruption in the insurance sector. But what is Trōv exactly about? What is the business model? How successful is it? Trōv’s founder and CEO Scott Walchek will share his vision in a keynote presentation at DIA Amsterdam, this May. To warm up, I interviewed Scott last week.

Trōv is the world’s first on-demand insurance platform for single items. It is a mobile app that allows users to insure whatever, whenever. It empowers customers to insure “just the things you care about” for whatever period you prefer. Trōv users simply snap a picture of a receipt or the product code of a product. This creates a personal digital repository for all things tangible. For selected items, Trōv offers a quote to insure each individual item. Customers can then simply “swipe to protect” to purchase the insurance. It is equally simple to “swipe to unprotect.” With Trōv, long contracts are not necessary. Even the claims process is automated with the use of chatbots and available on-demand on a smart phone.

Trōv is founded by Scott Walchek. Scott is a successful technology entrepreneur. Over the past 25 years, he built companies such as Macromedia, Sanctuary Woods, C2B Technologies and DebtMarket. He was also a co-lead investor and founding director of Baidu, China’s largest search engine.

Scott is also one of the 75 thought leaders who contributed to our new book “Reinventing Customer Engagement. The next level of digital transformation for banks and insurers.”

What inspired you to create Trōv?

Scott: “At some point I realized there is an enormous latent value in the information related to the things people own. From obvious things such as receipts and warranties to actually having an overview of what you own and what the current replacement value of each item is. We want to curate ways to turn this into value for consumers. From keeping information on items up to date to, for instance, arranging insurance for these items.

We’re a technology company, not an insurance company. We’re new in this space. So I started with testing our first ideas about a proposition and the assumptions behind it with several senior executives of large P&C insurers such as AIG and ACE. What I assumed is that at the end of the day the core metric of success is the ratio of insurance to actual value. The better this ratio, the better the balance sheet.

Of course, this is an oversimplification, but everyone agreed that in essence this is how over the past 200 years value in insurance is created. Now, what is remarkable is that insurers do not really know what consumers own, and what the exact value of these goods is … What if they did know? This would disrupt markets. It would lead to much better risk assessment driven by real knowledge of the true value of what people really own.”

See also: Insurtech: The Approaching Storm  

Trōv’s main target users are millennials, a target segment that most incumbents find very difficult to reach and engage with. Why does Trōv strike the right chord among this generation?

Scott: “We’re in the Australian market for a year now and entered the U.K. market a few months ago. Around 75% of our users are aged between 18 and 24. It appears that we are successful in tapping into the specific needs of this group. We do this by explicitly tapping into four key millennial trends. The first is “on-demand.” We can see that from how millennials consume entertainment, shopping etc. Services need to be now, 24 hours a day, on my device. The second trend is, “Don’t lock me into a lengthy contract.” We enable micro-duration. Customers can turn their insurance on and off as they see fit. In practice, they hardly do. But it is about the psychological benefit of being able to do so. The third is what we call “unbundled convenience”: “Let me choose what to protect, the things I really care about.” The fourth is: “people/agent optional.” Millennials want to engage with their smartphone without having to talk to an actual person.”

Trōv is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. But you decided to launch first in Australia and the U.K. Why there?

Scott: “Ha ha – there’s a linear story and a non-linear story to that! The linear story is that microduration is still new to the industry, so our hypothesis requires testing. The regulatory environment is important if you want to get to market fast. Australia and the U.K. have a single regulatory authority versus the 56 bodies in the U.S. But we’re also in the process of filing in the U.S. The non-linear story is that I just happened to meet Kirsten Dunlop, head of strategic innovation at Suncorp Personal Insurance, at a conference in Meribel in France. She immediately understood the strategic impact of Trōv, and that is when it took off.”

Because the Trōv concept is so new to consumers, it must be extremely interesting to learn what exactly strikes the right chord …

Scott: “Customers just love the experience. Our NPS is +49. However, we’re learning every day. With a completely new concept such as Trōv, it is impossible to know exactly what to expect, honestly. It turns out that Trōv reveals new consumer insights. There is still a significant number of valuables that our audience wants to insure but that we cannot provide a quote for, for instance. Although more than 60% never turn off an insurance, the ability to switch an insurance on and off turns out to be an important psychological benefit. This appears to be category-dependent. Sporting goods are switched on and off more often than smartphones and laptops.

We’re constantly measuring and improving every step of the funnel. From leaving Facebook to downloading the app, to registration, to actual swipes. We will share concrete numbers on uptake and conversion rates at DIA Amsterdam. But to already share two big learnings: We designed Trōv for use on smartphones, but, much to our surprise funnel figures multiplied when we decided to add a web interface. And we are actually even attracting better-quality customers.”

In Australia, you decided to partner with Suncorp, in the U.K. with AXA and in the U.S. with Munich Re. What are the success factors of a partnership between an insurtech and an incumbent?

Scott: “At the end of the day, it is about relationships and people. We understand their internal challenges. Everyone agrees that real knowledge of individual insured goods and the actual value of those goods improves the loss ratio. But we need to figure out how this works exactly through experimentation. This requires internal dedication, throughout the whole organization, starting at the top. It is not about conducting small pilots, but the willingness to experiment while going all the way, invest for several years and learn as we go what insurance will look like in the future and how consumers want to engage.”

What are your future plans and ambitions with Trōv? We can imagine that Trōv could also be an interesting partner for retailers and producers of durables. With Trōv, they could seamlessly sell insurance …

Scott: “We have three lines of business. The first is what we call “solid.” This is about expanding the Trōv app geographically, covering more categories and continuously developing the technology. Trōv will be launched in Japan, Germany and Canada shortly. Then there is “liquid”; offering white-label solutions to financial institutions, for instance in relation to connected cars and homes. The third line of business is “gas”; basically Trōv technology embedded in other applications; insurance as a service. This could be attractive for all sorts of merchants, telco operators etc.”

See also: Understanding Insurtech: the ABCs  

This would make Trōv even more part of the context in which consumers makes decisions about the risk they are willing and not willing to incur. And it also taps into the exponential growth of connected devices, similar to how machine-to-machine payments are increasingly taking place …

Scott: “Yes. What we’re now doing with Trōv is really the beginning. Trōv is about providing our customers with exactly the protection they want, exactly when they want it. With more and more connected devices and sensors and new data streams everywhere we can make the whole experience so seamless they don’t have to do anything at all.”

What Gig Economy Means for FinTech

Earlier, I discussed the implications of the gig economy on the insurance industry. We concluded that the existence of “crowdworkers” in the gig economy creates four main opportunities for insurers: a faster flow of information, claim process efficiencies, information customization and cost efficiencies.

We at WeGoLook believe all industries must take notice of the disruptive gig economy to remain smart and streamlined, adapting to consumer needs.

What I want to do today is focus on the traditional finance industry, which includes insurance, and the new disruptive trend in fintech. When you combine two major disruptive shifts (fintech and the gig economy) the results are game-changing.

The Fintech Disruption: The picture we can already see

Fintech is an umbrella term for an array of new financial sector services that were once monopolized by large financial institutions. This is a good thing. The change is forcing traditional banks to adapt and may even keep those pesky banking fees to a minimum!

Goldman Sachs predicts these fintech startups will capture as much as $4.7 trillion in annual revenue from traditional financial companies and $470 billion in profit.

These fintech companies include budgeting platforms such as Mint and Acorns, automated investing services such as Betterment or lending services such as Lending Club, OnDeck and Kabbage. What these companies are accomplishing is the decentralization and democratization of financial services like loans, banking and investing.

These fintech companies are making traditional services more accessible to consumers. Remember, the gig economy — or what some people term the “sharing economy” — is all about access.

See also: ‘Gig Economy’ Comes to Claims Handling  

In 2015, the Economist declared fintech to be a “revolution” of the finance industry, and Time Magazine stated banks should be “afraid” of fintech.

The Role of the Gig Economy in Fintech: Flexible workforces

In the gig economy, intermediaries disappear. But don’t ask me — ask your local taxi owner, hotelier or car rental agency if Uber, Airbnb or Turo have affected their way of doing business. This is a rhetorical question; of course there’s been an effect. This is a good thing, but how we react will define our businesses in the years to come.

When discussing what fintech means for the traditional finance industry, Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg columnist, aptly said: “What is much more interesting to me is how the traditional money-management industry will respond to and adopt the latest technologies for helping it operate more efficiently and with greater client satisfaction.”

This flexibility is something most industries, including the financial sector, have yet to fully embrace. There are a number of gig economy companies out there that have access to thousands of on-demand workers who can perform a number of tasks that were traditionally in the wheelhouse of full-time employees.

Why would an insurance company or other large financial institution have tens of thousands of employees across the country to verify assets when they can leverage a stable of trained, vetted and professional gig workers? This is the gig economy, where people with spare time are self-identified as willing to complete on-the-ground tasks in their location.

See also: The Gig Economy Is Alive and Growing  

Gig economy companies aren’t just a vendor service — they can be part of the process. Need we get into the amount of money this can save a company?

Let’s dive into a specific sector of fintech — online lending — as a case study of how the gig economy can enable and complement the lending process.

Gig Economy Case Study: A flexible workforce and online lending

Online lending, including peer-to-peer lending, is an old concept reinvented for a digital age. Entrepreneurs, business people and citizens have always borrowed and lent money, but only in recent history has that become much more sophisticated and accessible through online marketplaces and fintech services.

Foundation Capital predicts that more than $1 trillion in loans is expected to have originated through these new lending marketplaces by 2025. Let that number sink in for a second.

Indeed, fintech has enabled a safe lending environment between people and businesses through innovative screening and credit checking. Investors and businesses of all stripes can now lend and borrow through internet platforms without traditional bank applications or even the need to physically exchange documents.

In most of these cases, however, asset or document verification are still requirements.

Take, for instance, common financial loan transactions, such as vehicle financing or refinancing, property financing and business loans. All these transactions require some form of physical verification that an asset exists and is “as described.” Whether that is a car, property, business or some other assets, someone needs to fulfill lending requirements.

Gig economy companies such as mine, WeGoLook, have access to thousands of workers across the U.S. who are ready and trained to travel to a specific destination to complete asset verification tasks.

The Gig Worker Landscape: What that means for fintech

Technology allows us to direct our “lookers” to capture the correct on-site data and perform tasks in a consistent manner across the U.S. (and now in Canada, the U.K. and Australia). The benefits of this gig model are numerous, and a looker, or gig economy worker, can now:

  • Replace multiple vendors;
  • Augment or supplement employees in the field;
  • Augment, supplement or replace employees dispatched from a bank to verify assets or perform a task;
  • Provide faster task completion at a lower cost; and
  • Capture and store all data in the same place and format.

For an example of a real estate report we provide to many of our banking clients, click here.

Because of the flexibility inherent in gig work, there is a significant increase in flow of information to clients. For instance, companies like mine can provide an electronic “live” report, which allows clients to review photos and information prior to receiving a traditional report.

There is also the ability to support video, enabling a walk-through of a property, a demonstration of a piece of equipment in operation — and much more. This walk-through can also be done live with the client, if needed.

In the past, a customer would need to bring documents to a bank and work face-to-face with a branch employee for notarization and paperwork completion. This is no longer the case.

Gig employees can now immediately travel to the customer’s home or place of business. The gig worker can take photos of the asset, deliver documents, notarize originals, deliver them to a shipper and submit all relevant information via an electronic report.

This allows the bank to view all information and verify all documents are properly signed. The bank can then fund a customer before the FedEx or UPS package of original documents arrives.

See also: On-Demand Economy Is Just Starting

All this flexibility allows for faster turnaround times, the elimination of multiple vendors and a reduction in lag time waiting on a customer to try to get to the bank during business hours.

In the end, what we have is a smarter and faster process, which is important, particularly when a loan rate guarantee is in place.

Changing entire industries takes time, but the gig economy and fintech are rapidly altering the landscape of the traditional finance industry. As discussed, all three of these industries aren’t mutually exclusive. Traditional financial services can embrace the better use of technology through fintech and greater efficiency through the gig economy.

Buckle Up: Monetary Events Are Speeding

Just when you thought the world could not spin much faster, global monetary events in 2015 have picked up speed. Buckle up.

A key macro theme of ours for some time now has been the increasing importance of relative global currency movements in financial market outcomes. And what have we experienced in this very short year-to-date period so far? After years of jawboning, the European Central Bank has finally announced a $60 billion monthly quantitative easing exercise to begin in March. Switzerland “de- linked” its currency from the euro. China has lowered the official renminbi/U.S. dollar trading band (devalued the currency). China lowered its banking system required reserve ratio. The Turkish and Ukrainian currencies saw double-digit declines. And interest-rate cuts have been announced in Canada, Singapore, Denmark (four times in three weeks), India, Australia and Russia (after raising rates meaningfully in December to defend the ruble). All of the above occurred within five weeks.

What do all of these actions have in common? They are meant to influence relative global currency values. The common denominator under all of these actions was a desire to lower the relative value of each country’s or area’s currency against global competitors. As a result, foreign currency volatility has risen more than noticeably in 2015, necessarily begetting heightened volatility in global equity and fixed income markets.

If we step back and think about how individual central banks and country-specific economies responded to changes in the real global economy historically, it was through the interest-rate mechanism. Individual central banks could raise and lower short-term interest rates to stimulate or cool specific economies as they experienced the positive or negative influence of global economic change. Country-specific interest-rate differentials acted as pressure relief valves. Global short-term interest-rate differentials acted as a supposed relative equalization mechanism. But in today’s world of largely 0% interest rates, the interest-rate “pressure relief valve” is gone. The new pressure relief valve has become relative currency movements. This is just one reality of the historically unprecedented global grand central banking monetary experiments of the last six years. At this point, the experiment is neither good nor bad; it is simply the environment in which we find ourselves. And so we deal with this reality in investment decision making.

There has been one other event of note in early 2015 that directly relates to the potential for further heightened currency volatility. That event is the recent Greek elections. We all know that Greece has been in trouble for some time. Quite simply, the country has borrowed more money than it is able to pay back under current debt-repayment schedules. The New York consulting/ banking firm Lazard recently put out a report suggesting Greek debt requires a 50% “haircut” (default) for Greece to remain fiscally viable. The European Central Bank (ECB), largely prompted by Germany, is demanding 100% payback. Herein lies the key tension that must be resolved in some manner by the end of February, when a meaningful Greek debt payment is due.

Of course, the problem with a needed “haircut” in Greek debt is that major Euro banks holding Greek debt have not yet marked this debt to “market value” on their balance sheets. In one sense, saving Greece is as much about saving the Euro banks as anything. If there is a “haircut” agreement, a number of Euro banks will feel the immediate pain of asset write-offs. Moreover, if Greece receives favorable debt restructuring/haircut treatment, then what about Italy? What about Spain, etc? This is the dilemma of the European Central Bank, and ultimately the euro itself as a currency. This forced choice is exactly what the ECB has been trying to avoid for years. Politicians in the new Greek government have so far been committing a key sin in the eyes of the ECB – they have been telling the truth about fiscal/financial realities.

So, to the point: What does this set of uncharted waters mean for investment decision making? It means we need to be very open and flexible. We need to be prepared for possible financial market outcomes that in no way fit within the confines of a historical or academic playbook experience.

Having said this, a unique occurrence took place in Euro debt markets in early February: Nestle ́ shorter-term corporate debt actually traded with a negative yield. Think about this. Investors were willing to lose a little bit of money (-20 basis points, or -.2%) for the “safety” of essentially being able to park their capital in Nestle’s balance sheet. This is a very loud statement. Academically, we all know that corporate debt is “riskier” than government debt (which is considered “risk-free”). But the markets are telling us that may not be the case at the current time, when looking at Nestle ́ bonds as a proxy for top-quality corporate balance sheets. Could it be that the balance sheets of global sovereigns (governments) are actually riskier? If so, is global capital finally starting to recognize and price in this fact? After all, negative Nestle ́ corporate yields were seen right alongside Greece’s raising its hand, suggesting Euro area bank and government balance sheets may not be the pristine repositories for capital many have come to blindly accept. This Nestle ́ bond trade may be one of the most important market signals in years.

As we have stated in our writings many a time, one of the most important disciplines in the investment management process is to remain flexible and open in thinking. Dogmatic adherence to preconceived notions can be very dangerous, especially in the current cycle. As such, we cannot look at global capital flows and investment asset class price reactions in isolation. This may indeed be one of the greatest investment challenges of the moment, but one whose understanding is crucial to successful navigation ahead. In isolation, who would be crazy enough to buy short-term Nestle ́ debt where the result is a guaranteed loss of capital in a bond held to maturity? No one. But within the context of deteriorating global government balance sheets, all of a sudden it is not so crazy an occurrence. It makes complete sense within the context of global capital seeking out investment venues of safety beyond what may have been considered “risk-free” government balance sheets, all within the context of a negative yield environment. Certainly for the buyer of Nestle ́ debt with a negative yield, motivation is not the return on capital, but the return of capital.

This leads us to equities and, again, this very important concept of being flexible in thinking and behavior. Historically, valuation metrics have been very important in stock investing. Not just levels of earnings and cash-flow growth, but the multiple of earnings and cash-flow growth that investors have been willing to pay to own individual stocks. This has been expressed in valuation metrics such as price-to-earnings, price relative to book value, cash flow, etc. To the point, in the current market environment, common stock valuation metrics are stretched relative to historical context.

In the past, we have looked at indicators like total stock market capitalization relative to GDP. The market capitalization of a stock is nothing more than its shares outstanding multiplied by its current price. The indicator essentially shows us the value of stock market assets relative to the real economy. Warren Buffett has called this his favorite stock market indicator.


The message is clear. By this valuation metric, only the year 2000 saw a higher valuation than the current. For a while now, a number of market pundits have suggested the U.S. stock market is at risk of a crash based on these numbers.

Wells Capital Management recently developed data for the median historical price-to-earnings multiple of the NYSE (using the data for only those New York Stock Exchange companies with positive earnings). What this data tells us is that the current NYSE median PE multiple is the highest ever seen. Not exactly wildly heartwarming for anyone with a sense of stock market valuation history.


It is data like this that has prompted a number of market commentators to issue warnings: The big bad stock market wolf isn’t coming; he’s here!

In thinking about these numbers and these dire warnings from a number on Wall Street, we again need to step back and put the current cycle into context. We need to put individual asset class movements into context.

In isolation, current stock market valuations should be very concerning (and they are). In isolation, these types of valuation metrics do not make a lot of sense set against historical precedent. But the negative yield on Nestle corporate debt make littles to no common sense, either…unless it is looked at as an alternative to deteriorating government balance sheets and government debt markets.

Trust us, the LAST thing we are trying to do is be stock market cheerleaders. We’ll leave that to the carnival barkers at CNBC, with its historically low viewer ratings. What we are trying to do is “see” where the current set of global financial market, economic and currency circumstances will lead global capital as we move throughout 2015.

Heightened global currency volatility means an increasing amount of global capital at the margin is seeking principal safety. The recent Greek election results are now forcing into the mainstream commentary the issue of Euro bank and government fiscal integrity, let alone solvency. We believe the negative yield on the Nestle ́ corporate bond is an important marker that global capital is now looking at the private (corporate) sector as a potential repository for safety. The Nestle ́ bond is an investment that has nothing to do with yield and everything to do with capital preservation. Nestle ́ has one of the more pristine corporate balance sheets on Earth. We need to remember that equities represent a claim on not only future cash flows of a corporation but also on its real assets and balance sheet wherewithal.

We need to be open to the possibility that, despite very high-valuation metrics, a weak global economy and accelerating global currency movements that are sure to play a bit of havoc with reported corporate earnings, the equity asset class may increasingly be seen as a global capital repository for safety in a world where global government balance sheets have become ever more precarious over the last half decade. The investor who survives long-term is the one with a plan of action for all potential market outcomes. Avoid the tendency to cry wolf, but, of course, also keep in mind that even the boy who cried wolf was ultimately correct.

It’s all in the rhythm and pacing of each unique financial and economic cycle. Having a disciplined risk management process is the key to being able to remain flexible in investment thinking and action.

Issue 'Tickets' for Safety Violations?

A recent article in CompNewsNetwork describes the training of Alberta’s first occupational health and safety peace officers.

Don't get too excited. “Peace officer” is the same politically correct mumbo jumbo term some jurisdictions use for their prison guards.

These peace officers will have the ability to write tickets to employers and workers who cut corners and put people at risk. Classes of officers will continue training until all 143 OHS officers are certified to write tickets. The fines will range from $100 to $500. While employers here in the States have become accustomed to potential fines and regulatory actions for workplace safety infractions, this is different. First, a ticketing action is onsite and immediate, similar to being pulled over for driving 98 mph in a school zone. Second, and most dramatically, the worker — the employee previously known as the innocent victim of corporate greed and arrogance — could be the one on the receiving end.

That is huge: personal accountability in a no-fault world. Who'd ever heard of such a thing? Frankly, I have my doubts, but it will be interesting to see if this type of approach has any impact on reductions in workplace accidents.

The ticketing of employees for safety violations will strike some as a breach of exclusive remedy; the no-fault doctrine that has guided our industry for more than 100 years. 

I think they may be wrong. The adherence of exclusive remedy is strictly post-accident — once an injury has occurred. These citations on the other hand are clearly in the safety and prevention realm. Personal responsibility still applies in that world. As long as, that is, this method is used in a preventative manner and not a post-injury action.

What remains to be seen is what these peace officers are willing to do. There is always a tendency to go for the “deep pocket,” and writing a $500 citation for a faceless company may be much easier than issuing it to the forklift operator with a wife, three kids and a broken-down car. And what of the post-accident investigation? Will these officers cite an employee for causing an accident? If I am a worker injured by another’s action, an action for which he receives the equivalent of a traffic citation, does that cement potential third-party liability for him?

Under our workers’ comp system in the States, this policy of writing tickets would be much less likely to see the light of day. Still, it is a concept worth watching. It is possible that Alberta is on to something here that will help avoid accidents by putting the blame where it belongs, whether company or worker, before someone gets hurt.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.