How sovereign debt becomes leverage – a lesson from history

"America Looks at its Neighbors" (political cartoon, 1932).

"America Looks at its Neighbors" (political cartoon, 1932).

I grew up in South Africa and for a time my birth country was the only worthwhile stop on the long sea journey that spice traders would make from Europe to India and back. South Africa was colonized by Europeans for this reason. A guy called Jan Van Riebeeck was ordered to set up camp there by the Dutch East India Company.

In November, 1869 the 10 year construction project on The Highway to India, aka the Suez Canal, was completed and South Africa became just another colony. Since then the Suez has had a colorful history, but there’s one specific teachable moment in the history of the Suez the United States could learn from…

In July 1956 the president of Egypt, Gamal Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. This irked a few stakeholders and on October 29, 1956, Israel invaded Egypt. The next day Britain and France threw their hats into the ring and started bombing Cairo.

At this point in history, Britain was suffering under a mountain of debt. Here’s a historical graph of Britains debt to GDP ratio to give you some perspective:

British Public Debt from 1900 to 2010

British Public Debt from 1900 to 2010

The United States held much of the debt that Britain was in. Some of the bonds were owed to the US as part of Britains World War II debt to the US government, corporations and individuals and some of them were part of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe post WWII.

The US used this debt to put tremendous pressure on Britain to halt the invasion. Eisenhower ordered Humphrey, secretary of the treasury to prepare to sell part of the US governments sterling bond holdings. His British counterpart advised his prime minister, Anthony Eden, that if the US did sell their bonds, the British pound would devalue to such an extent that they would no longer be able to import what they needed to sustain the islands. Eden announced a cease fire on November 6th.

The US is now at around 90% debt to GDP ratio with a total debt of just over 14 trillion. Around 4 trillion of that is held by other countries, China being our biggest “investor”.

Lets put it this way: It’s hard to not take the call when your single largest investor needs a favor.

The avg age of an entrepreneur is 40 and only 11% to 16% are venture backed

Vivek Whadwa, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke has written about some interesting research his team has done in the Washington Post.

They found the average age for an entrepreneur is 40 and there are twice as many entrepreneurs over 50 than under 25.

They also found that entrepreneurs with a college degree tend to grow bigger companies than those who dropped out.

But most controversial, Vivek and his team found that the VC industry tends to overstate their role and that most successful companies are not venture backed:


The National Venture Capital Association touts its members’ impact on the U.S. economy, saying they created 12 million jobs and generated $3 trillion in revenue in 2010 (equivalent to 21 percent of the nation’s GDP), and claiming credit for eight out of 10software-industry jobs.

But these numbers do not isolate venture capital’s real role. They include all the revenue generated in 2010 by any company that a venture capitalist ever invested in, at any stage of its existence. Venture capitalists could buy stock in a company before its initial public offering and then claim credit for its success in perpetuity.

Less than 5 percent of venture capital goes to early-stage companies — those taking the risk of developing innovative products. Our analysis of more than 500 companies in high-growth industries revealed that not even 11 percent of these companies took venture capital at any stage of their existence. The Kauffman Foundation ran a similar analysis of companies on the Inc. magazine 500 list and found that only 16 percent of them raised venture capital.

The reality is that venture capital follows innovation. Such investors seek out companies that already have working products and proven business models. Venture capital doesn’t stimulate innovation; it wants in once it looks like a good bet.


Business lessons from Breaking Bad

On the recommendation of my sister-in-law I’m watching a few episodes of Breaking Bad, Season 1.

There’s a classic exchange between Walt and Jesse in Ep 6 as they realize they need to move from retail to wholesale:

Walt: This is unacceptable. I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk. I thought you’d be ready for another lb today.

Jesse: You may know a lot about chemistry man but you don’t know jack about slangin’ dope.

Walt: We have to move our production bulk wholesale now. How do we do that?

Jesse: What do you mean? To, like, a distributor?

Walt: Yes. Yes, that’s what we need. We need a distributor now. Do you know anyone like that?

Jesse: Yeah. I mean, I used to until you killed him.

Hacker News negativity finally hurts the program it supports

I’ve posted a couple of times about the negativity on Hacker News and why I no longer post there. Well the AirBnB fiasco has been seized by the HN “nancy grace” crowd with a vengance and they’re pounding their most successful startup ever into the dirt and promoting its competitors. While you may feel the AirBnB execs could have handled the destruction of a customer’s home a little better, this seems a little over the top.

Here is a list of all recent AirBnB stories that hit #1 on Hacker News during the last 7 days starting with the oldest first. These stats are taken from an app I wrote a while ago to track HN stats.

Airbnb bags $112 million in Series B — comments guynamedloren Posted 6 days, 16 hours, 30 minutes ago. and spent 5 hours at #1


AirBnB: Crimes committed against a host — comments foxit Posted 4 days, 13 hours, 40 minutes ago. and spent 7 hours, 50 minutes at #1


The Moment Of Truth For AirBnB As User’s Home Is Utterly Trashed — comments ssclafani Posted 4 days, 30 minutes ago. and spent 6 hours at #1


On Safety: A Word From Airbnb — comments ssclafani Posted 3 days, 18 hours, 20 minutes ago. and spent 4 hours, 30 minutes at #1


Airbnb Victim Speaks Again: Homeless, Scared And Angry — comments jamesgagan Posted 2 days, 12 hours, 50 minutes ago. and spent 10 minutes at #1


Airbnb Nightmare: No End In Sight — comments moonlighter Posted 2 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes ago. and spent 5 hours at #1


Airbnb story on front page of Financial Times print edition — comments arghnoname Posted 2 days, 7 hours, 20 minutes ago. and spent 2 hours, 39 minutes at #1


Airbnb Competitor Checks IDs: ‘We Don’t Want to Trade Security for Volume’ — comments citadrianne Posted 2 days, 2 hours, 50 minutes ago. and spent 4 hours, 40 minutes at #1


Plot thickens in Airbnb vacation rental horror story — comments felipemnoa Posted 1 day, 2 hours, 20 minutes ago. and spent 1 hour, 40 minutes at #1


Another Airbnb Victim Tells His Story: “There Were Meth Pipes Everywhere” — comments jasonlbaptiste Posted 10 minutes ago. and spent 10 minutes at #1


Political Marketing and the “Debt Ceiling”

The phrase “Debt Ceiling” brings to mind phrases like “War on Terror”, “Abortion on Demand”, “Flip-Flop” – or some of the pejoratives used to criticize those wanting to depart from the Vietnam war: nervous nellies, special pleaders and politicians opposing the war were ready to “cut and run”.

The reality is that there is no hard ceiling that is going to be reached this Tuesday. Instead the Federal Government will be forced to make progressively harder and more irresponsible decisions. Creditors and expenses will be put in a long queue and those with the lowest priority and least impact will go delinquent first.

This has already started happening. For example, Geithner has declared a debt suspension period and is currently not putting money in the Civil Service Retirement Fund. They’re deferring payment. [Source: Hennessey’s interview on Econtalk]

Come August 2nd with no decision, we will continue to pay back the interest and principal on government debt but Geithner will have to make progressively harder decisions about which payments to defer. At some point the lawyers in the treasury department are going to tell him he’s overstepping the bounds of what he’s able to do. But that will probably be some time after August 2nd.

The Federal Government, the same organization that is asking the American people for more money and for permission to go into more debt, is the one who came up with the date August 2nd and the description of the political stalemate’s impact. They have branded it the “Debt Ceiling”.

I think the date August 2nd is a useful forcing mechanism to inspire political debate and decision making. Movement is always good when it comes to Washington. But one wonders if the phrase “debt ceiling” is Barack Obama’s “War on Terror”.


Irish Melodic Metal to kick your Friday’s ass

When I’m coding on 4 hours sleep I stream very heavy metal to stay focused. ChroniX GRIT on iTunes is usually my staple. I just heard a new band out of Dublin, Ireland called Shattered Skies and they absolutely kick ass!

They’ve released their Reanimation EP free on SoundCloud and BandCamp.

This is the final track on the EP titled This is What We Built:

06 – This Is What We Built – [Reanimation EP] by Shattered Skies