Should you invest in the world’s poor, Iraq, or in your heating closet? Three new consulting reports

Most consulting companies have newsletters; the goal of these newsletters is to convince you to try and hire the company. Many newsletter articles focus on investigating new markets. From a business point of view, this makes sense, because the consulting firm is positioning itself as an expert on the new market, firms will have a learning curve any time they enter a new market, so it’s natural for a firm to want to hire some help. Here are three recent examples of consulting firms telling you where you should invest:

The world’s poor
(Source:McKinsey & Financial Access Institute: Half the world’s poor are unbanked)
The report notes that tons of the world’s poor don’t have access to formal credit, and that the regulatory climate for microfinance firms is mixed. This is part of the “double goal” of providing social services to the poor.

Quality of the report: There are many poor people without access to formal financial services – are you surprised? What is perhaps surprising is that the poor are already sophisticated borrowers and lenders. As Daryl Collins et al.’s new book, Portfolios of the Poor, explains, most poor people have uneven incomes, but need to be ready for emergencies, save for big expenditures (weddings, school fees), so they turn to credit and savings out of necessity. Most lending is done with a neighbor or a savings club (a neighborhood group) although microfinance is becoming more prevalent.

Business Opportunity: Storing cash with neighbors is risky and not useful over long periods of time (5-10 years) for instruments like term life insurance. There’s an opportunity for microfinance firms to start profitable, and helpful, businesses if they can provide a reliable service, flexible repayment schedules and logistical support to get to poor neighborhoods.

At the same time, the poor are poor, and while there’s a huge volume of people demanding financial services, and the potential to charge high interest rates, the margins per customer served are small. Furthermore there’s bound to be excessive rent-seeking from people and firms who aren’t worried too much about profits.

(Source: McKinsey Quarterly, interview with Paul Brinkley of the Department of Defense)
Paul is charged with managing and growing business in Iraq. I like Brinkley because he’s a realist, and willing to embrace things that have worked in Iraq, instead of staying beholden to an ideology. For example, state controlled enterprise has worked better in the short term than free market “shock therapy.” Paul says:

“I honestly believe Iraq is one of the last great “ground floors” we will ever have in the world. China in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a ground floor—if you got in at that time, you did very well. India followed. Iraq today is a ground floor. It doesn’t have the population of China or India, but it has a huge amount of mineral wealth, oil wealth, and agricultural wealth. Geographically, it is positioned to become one of the most prosperous countries in the world. And I don’t think that ground floor is going to stay open for too much longer. I think we have a few more months, and then the acceleration of investment in Iraq will take place. I expect that to happen during 2010.”

Quality of the report: It’s clear that Brinkley has his head screwed on straight but it’s difficult to evaluate the opportunity, because I know zero about the current state of Iraq. How has Vietnam done after the war? Afghanistan? Former British colonies have done remarkably well, but that was a completely different situation than we are in today. Many countries that are rich in resources use them to become rich and don’t invest in other parts of their economy (Venezuela, Uganda, Iran). Dubai has tried but that’s still being worked out.

Cutting energy costs.
Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan,
The Business of Sustainability.
Industry leaders are going green, and by going green I mean reducing their energy use, not engaging in wasteful signaling. However, the managers that do look into the issue are often surprised by the large amount of possible savings.

Quality of the report: As a survey of people actually involved in the industry, I’m likely to trust the included findings.

Business opportunity: This one’s actually pretty strong. Because the IPCC’s estimates of oil reserves are too high world oil supply may start to decrease sooner than most people estimate, and world demand for energy will only increase, potentially leading to higher prices (certainly high demand for energy-reducing devices).

There’s lots of politics surrounding the issue and many managers don’t think there’s much profit there. Because of the politics, it’s difficult for managers to evaluate the actual opportunity; if managers aren’t strong believers in global warming then they won’t be stirred by the global warming argument. However the stronger argument is that firms can save a ton of money by going green.

Words like “sustainability” are not helping. “Sustainability” implies lots of beliefs about global warming and a rather strict interpretation about how much energy you should be using. They discourage managers from approaching the issue as they would any other relevant cost-saving opportunity.

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