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Management Strategies

05:36 PM
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Stand By Your Chairman

Imagine that you're about to graduate from an Ivy League university, marry your sweetheart and enter the family business. Then, your father skips town with his new girlfriend and tells you that he sold his company. You miss a final exam and jeopardize your graduation. With no degree, no job, and a suddenly sordid family history, your would-be in-laws offer your fiance a trip to Europe if she dumps you.

Although that was hardly an auspicious start for one of the legendary dealmakers in financial services, Sandy Weill has never been one to yield to obstacles without a fight.

As chronicled in "Tearing Down the Walls," by Monica Langley (Simon & Schuster, 2003), Weill worked at Bear Stearns as a securities certificate runner, quote boy and a margin clerk before becoming a broker. From there, Weill became a partner in a startup firm that executed a string of bold acquisitions. Then, in an amazing "second act," he joined Commercial Credit, and went on to acquire Primerica, Travelers and finally Citigroup.

Had she listened to her parents, Joan Weill would have missed out on all the fun.

After avidly reading Weill's biography, I feel that I personally owe the man a great debt. It's not just that Weill's story provides inspiration of how to succeed despite adversity. It's also that Citigroup happens to hold my student loans. So by my calculations, I owe Sandy Weill about $200.

You'll get your money, Sandy.

In late July, the Pentagon shelved plans for a "Policy Analysis Market" that would have tracked expectations of global instability by establishing a futures exchange on turmoil in the Middle East. The same politicians who scarcely hesitate to use opinion polls and game theory to win elections got a little squeamish at the prospect of using those same tools for national security.

The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not chosen at random, but for their apparent strategic and symbolic value. Our chances of preventing the next attack are in proportion to our skill at predicting the target. Through a marketplace, the collective wisdom of experts could have indicated the relative perceived threat to a wide range of targets, and therefore given guidance as to how to allocate scarce resources between various defensive measures.

Perhaps the real flaw with the Pentagon proposal was that it jeopardized the Congressional pork barrel. If spending on national defense and homeland security had to be justified with consideration of market-driven threat assessments, many elected officials would have discovered the dubious perceived value of their pet projects.

It's a shame that the Policy Analysis Market never got the chance to prove itself. Hopefully, it won't be a crying shame.

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