Category Archives: Social impact

24/6/20: COVID19 Social Impact: June 2020 Ireland


Interesting insights from the CSO on some impacts of COVID19 pandemic on general population: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-sic19eep/socialimpactofcovid-19surveyjune2020asnapshotofexperiencesandexpectationsinapandemic/.

The following are of significant medium and long-term concern:

  1. Health impact 1: 40.9% of all respondents to the survey report increased body weight since the start of the COVID19 restrictions, against 13.7% who report weight loss.
  2. Health impact 2: "49.0 of newly labour inactive respondents (those in employment before the onset of the COVID19 crisis and currently not working) reported an Increase in weight. This compares with 37.6% of respondents that are currently working."
  3. Health impact 3: The above health effects are most likely primarily driven by stress. For example: "Analysis of weight change by household composition found that a higher percentage of adults living in households with children reported having gained weight (47.5%) when compared with adults living alone (35.2%)." Given that households with children faced the pressure of not only own lockdown-related factors, but also the burden of caring for children and the pressures of home-schooling, changes in the health status are likely to be signifcantly driven by stress.
  4. Precautionary savings: "Of respondents that reported reduced expenditure and/or an increase in income, just over half (51.1%) said that they have/will put additional money into Savings."
  5. Workplace: Of the respondents who reported as working from home, 19.6% stated they do not have adequate work space and/or equipment. "Almost one in five (18.5%) respondents reported being Very or Extremely concerned about their employer’s ability to provide a safe work environment in the context of COVID-19."
What does this mean for business? Some thoughts:
  • We are likely to see stronger focus on health and well-being when it comes to consumers voting with their Euros in months and years to come. Smaller, natural and sustainability-focused brands are likely to have an opportunity space as long as they can maintain value proposition. 
  • The above also supports increased demand for personalisation of goods and services being supplied to consumers, a trend that will accelerate should COVID19 restrictions persist or even re-accelerate. 
  • Financial implications of COVID19 will reinforce workplace and brand effects: as consumers return to work, they will increasingly demand greater safety and more direct engagement with their employers and brands. 
  • Production processes will shift toward ensuring tighter control and quality delivery by the brands, which means that co-manufacturing and outsourcing will be less favoured by consumers than in-house production. 
  • Direct-to-Consumer channels of sales will become more important, as they provide greater assurances to consumers of quality, provenance and ESG-impacts attributes of their suppliers.
  • On investment side: organic cash flow-funded investment will become more important in years to come. This will be driven by greater preference amongst retail investors for liquidity and by the re-discovery of the need for cash-based safety buffers amongst the companies. Low cost of funding in the bonds markets and in the banking channel will also disfavour households shifting out of their precautionary savings accumulated during the pandemic.
I am sure there will be other disruptive factors at play as well. 

9/9/2018: Corporate Power, Charity, and Social & Policy Impacts


In an important discussion, titled "Tax-exempt lobbying: Corporate philanthropy as a tool for political influence", Marianne Bertrand, Matilde Bombardini, Raymond Fisman, and Francesco Trebbi (02 September 2018, https://voxeu.org/article/corporate-philanthropy-tool-political-influence) argue that as "special interests use donations to influence the political process", "...philanthropic efforts in the US are targeted, at least in part, to influence legislators. Districts with influential politicians receive more donations, as do non-profits with politicians on their boards. This is problematic because, unlike PAC contributions and lobbying, influence by charity is hard for the public to observe." The resulting conclusion by the authors is that the case of corporate-charity interlinks "amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of corporations expressing their political voice". In other words, concentration of market power causes concentration push in lobbying and, thus, potentially forces policy formation to more closely reflect the interests of the corporate donors at the expense of the taxpayers and ordinary voters.

This is a very important issue in any analysis of the functioning of our democratic processes. But it also raises another 'adjoining' issue, not covered in the paper: American corporations are increasingly relying on other channels to alter social (and related policy) outcomes today. This channel is the companies increasing financial and other commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Impact (or even broader ESG) targeting. Whilst benign in its core values and ethos, the channel can be open to potential abuse by corporate powers. In addition, like charity status channel, the CSR and SI/ESG channel also avails of public funding link ups to corporate balance sheets (via tax incentives, subsidies, co-financing of projects, etc). The question worth asking, therefore, is the following one: To what extent do modern SI/ESG and CSR strategies of major corporations align with their lobbying objectives? In other words, do corporates use SI/ESG/CSR strategies to promote self-interest beyond purely societal interest?

Surprisingly, very little research in the Social Impact or ESG analysis has been devoted to the potential for corporations to 'game the system' in their favour.

25/4/18: Tesla: Lessons in Severe and Paired Risks and Uncertainties


Tesla, the darling of environmentally-sensible professors around the academia and financially ignorant herd-following investors around the U.S. urban-suburban enclaves of Tech Roundabouts, Silicon Valleys and Alleys, and Social Media Cul-de-Sacs, has been a master of cash raisings, cash burnings, and target settings. To see this, read this cold-blooded analysis of Tesla's financials: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimcollins/2018/04/25/a-brief-history-of-tesla-19-billion-raised-and-9-billion-of-negative-cash-flow/2/#3364211daf3d.

Tesla, however, isn't that great at building quality cars in sustainable and risk-resilient ways. To see that, consider this:

  1. Tesla can't procure new parts that would be consistent with quality controls norms used in traditional automotive industry: https://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1116291_tesla-turns-to-local-machine-shops-to-fix-parts-before-theyre-installed-on-new-cars.
  2. Tesla's SCM systems are so bad, it is storing faulty components at its factory. As if lean SCM strategies have some how bypassed the 21st century Silicon Valley: http://www.thedrive.com/news/20114/defective-tesla-parts-are-stacked-outside-of-california-machine-shop-report-shows.
  3. It's luxury vehicles line is littered with recalls relating to major faults: https://www.wired.com/story/tesla-model-s-steering-bolt-recall/. Which makes one pause and think: if Tesla can't secure quality design and execution at premium price points, what will you get for $45,000 Model 3?
  4. Tesla burns through billions of cash year on year, and yet it cannot deliver on volume & quality mix for its 'make-or-break' Model 3: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2018/04/hitting-ramp-tesla-built-nearly-21-percent-first-quarter-model-3s-last-week/.
  5. Tesla's push toward automation is an experiment within an experiment, and, as such, it is a nesting of one tail risk uncertainty within another tail risk uncertainty. We don't have many examples of such, but here is one: https://arstechnica.com/cars/2018/04/experts-say-tesla-has-repeated-car-industry-mistakes-from-the-1980s/ and it did not end too well. The reason why? Because uncertainty is hard to deal with on its own. When two sources of uncertainty correlate positively in terms of their adverse impact, likelihood, velocity of evolution and proximity, you have a powerful conventional explosive wrapped around a tightly packed enriched uranium core. The end result can be fugly.
  6. Build quality is poor: https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/03/munro-compares-tesla-model-3-build-quality-kia-90s/.  So poor, Tesla is running "reworking" and "remanufacturing" poor quality cars facilities, including a set-aside factory next to its main production facilities, which takes in faulty vehicles rolled off the main production lines: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-03-22/elon-musk-is-a-modern-henry-ford-that-s-bad.
  7. Meanwhile, and this is really a black eye for Tesla-promoting arm-chair tenured environmentalists, there is a pesky issue with Tesla's predatory workforce practices, ranging from allegations of discrimination https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Tesla-Racial-Bias-Suit-Tests-the-Rights-of-12827883.php, to problems with unfair pay practices https://www.technologyreview.com/the-download/610186/tesla-says-it-has-a-plan-to-improve-working-conditions/, and unions busting: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/21065/tesla-workers-elon-musk-factory-fremont-united-auto-workers.  To be ahead of the curve here, consider Tesla an Uber-light governance minefield. The State of California, for one, is looking into some of that already: https://gizmodo.com/california-is-investigating-tesla-following-a-damning-r-1825368102.
  8. Adding insult to the injury outlined in (7) above, Tesla seems to be institutionally unable to cope with change. In 2017, Musk attempted to address working conditions issues by providing new targets for fixing these: https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/24/elon-musk-addresses-working-condition-claims-in-tesla-staff-wide-email/. The attempt was largely an exercise in ignoring the problems, stating they don't exist, and then promising to fix them. A year later, problems are still there and no fixes have been delivered: https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/tesla-fremont-factory-injuries?utm_term=.qa8EzdgEw#.dto7Dnp7A. Then again, if Tesla can't deliver on core production targets, why would anyone expect it to act differently on non-core governance issues?
Here's the problem, summed up in a tight quote:


Now, personally, I admire Musk's entrepreneurial spirit and ability. But I do not own Tesla stock and do not intend to buy its cars. Because when on strips out all the hype surrounding this company, it's 'disruption' model borrows heavily from governance paradigms set up by another Silicon Valley 'disruption darling' - Uber, its financial model borrows heavily from the dot.com era pioneers, and its management model is more proximate to the 20th century Detroit than to the 21st century Germany.

If you hold Tesla stock, you need to decide whether all of the 8 points above can be addressed successfully, alongside the problems of production targets ramp up, new models launches and other core manufacturing bottlenecks, within an uncertain time frame that avoids triggering severe financial distress? If your answer is 'yes' I would love to hear from you how that can be possible for a company that never in its history delivered on a major target set on time. If your answer is 'no', you should consider timing your exit.


22/1/18: For-Profit CSR: Bounds of Effectiveness?


Quite an interesting paper concerning the potential limitations to the structured CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs impact.

From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Prosocial incentives and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are seen by many firms as an effective way to motivate workers. … We argue that the benefits crucially depend on the perceived intention of the firm. Workers use prosocial incentives as a signal about the firm's type and if used instrumentally in order to profit the firm, they can backfire. We show in an experiment in collaboration with an Italian firm, that monetary and prosocial incentives work very differently. While monetary incentives used instrumentally increase effort, instrumental charitable incentives backfire compared to non-instrumental incentives. This is especially true for non-prosocially-motivated workers who do not care about the prosocial cause but use prosocial incentives only as a signal about the firm. The results contribute to the understanding of the limits of prosocial incentives by focusing on their signaling value to the agent about the principal's type.”

Which raises some questions:

Often, these days, we think of CSR-to-improve-bottom-line ideas for structuring CSR and broader Social Impact programs. In the light of this research, should we continue focusing on the bottom line-linked CSR? Traditional corporate view of CSR has been that ’we spend resources to do good’. This perception of CSR within corporations quite often results in CSR function becoming secondary to other profit-centric functions. As a response to this, academics and consultants working in the field of Social Impact have advocated for years that companies and organisations need to define CSR as an organic profit-related function. The latest research suggests that this can be counter-productive to other objectives of the CSR programs.

If we do continue to focus on CSR as profit-related function in our teaching and research, what are the limitations to its effectiveness? The paper findings are based on a very restricted data set, derived from a single firm. We do not know the key factors driving the limitations uncovered in the study and we do not know how these factors translate into other geographical, cultural, social and macroeconomic contexts.

Are mixed/hybrid enterprises (socially-mandated for profit enterprises) have to rely on a biased selection of employees to mitigate for this effect? In other words, are mixed/hybrid enterprises, that explicitly rely on conflating the notions of Social Impact and profitability, subject to lower productivity risks when employing ’non-prosocially-motivated’ workers? If so, are systemic biasing filters used in selecting best-fit employees for such enterprises to avoid such workers? Can these filters be identified and tested against other biases (or worse, potential discriminatory hiring practices)?

As educators, we might think about structuring these questions into our classroom discussions. As researchers, we can see this study as opening up the gates for further research. The questions the study prompts are big, important and poorly researched.

Full paper: NBER Working Paper No. w24109 http://www.nber.org/papers/w24109
Ungated version: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3092527