Monday, March 31, 2014

Old Fake Award Scams Never Die...They Just Change Their Names

Congratulations!  After our careful nomination process, many influential people of achievement were reviewed.  In the end, you have been selected as the recipient of a prestigious award recognizing your accomplishments!

All you need to do to claim your prestigious award is send a check or money order for $358, and you will receive a beautiful commemorative crystal trophy for your desk or mantel.  You will also be included in a major press release campaign to announce this momentous event to the whole world.

Of course, no one has ever heard of the organization or the award that you have been selected for, but pay no mind to that silly little detail!  No one cares about the actual award you received anyway, right?

This straightforward business model (or "scam") assumes that some percentage of businesspeople are essentially insecure or gullible enough to put anything on their shelf or mantel that smacks of someone else recognizing their value, and will part with a nominal sum to accept such an award.  And generally, the business model bears enough fruit over time to perpetuate itself.

Consequently, countless "Who's Who" scams have cropped up over the decades, leading Forbes to create the "Hall of Lame" dedicated to publicizing such silly contrivances.

I would like to nominate the United States Institute for Excellence in Commerce ("USIEC") for giving out such a meaningless award, recognizing its worthless contribution to an online world already filled with scams.

The USIEC claims to be a "leading authority on researching, evaluating and recognizing companies across a wide spectrum of industries" that meet its "stringent standards of excellence."

Of course, its website is largely a template and contains little substance when examined.  The USIEC does not list a single human being actually on its "team," and its website includes mostly generic, stock photographs of impressive-looking office buildings and friendly business-people.

The USIEC purports to be a philanthropic enterprise, having offered loans through to fishermen in Nicaragua, farmers in Kenya, grocery stalls in Lebanon and dairy farmers in Uganda.  In reality, allows anyone to donate as little as $25.00 to humanitarian aid.

Further, the USIEC has self-published a couple of research "white papers" that are virtually unreadable gibberish, but called it a "library" for its members.

In exchange, for $358, you can receive a framed certificate and trophy from the USIEC to show the world that you are a proud contributor to its noble cause.

In reality, the USIEC was outed numerous times by other bloggers who noted that it used to call itself the "Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce," and others who decry it as a "meaningless award scam."

And if you think that the USIEC couldn't possibly have duped anyone by its approach, it is worth noting that its website receives heavy traffic.  Further, here is a list of just a few press releases announcing those who evidently "accepted" the award, presumably by paying the USIEC for the trophy and to publicize the honor:

In reality, being offered an award by the USIEC is not a legitimate recognition of one's diligence and enterprise, as one PR blogger put it, it's "a sign of gullibility."

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Drive to Luxury: Commodity Fetishism or Innate Human Need?

Over the last several decades, across the globe, there has been a marked increase in consumers' collective demand for luxury goods.  What are luxury goods and why do consumers seem to express such an insatiable demand for them?  While most researchers cannot agree on a standard definition for luxury goods, they generally agree that it is any consumer product or item that is not a true "necessity."

In other words, access to potable water is a necessity to survive in the world, but owning a diamond-studded watch is not.

Some researchers argue that the luxury marketplace focuses the consumer on a perceived need to belong to an elite group and manifests desire for extremely high quality products, often far in excess of actual need.

Some political commentators on the left have argued that luxury goods are a negative form of "commodity fetishism," a term coined by Karl Marx. Marx decried the capitalistic drive toward exclusionary private property and seemingly irrational desire for classist exclusion that he believed luxury goods represent.

He argued that humans were encouraged to ascribe irrational value to arbitrary materials (such as gold or diamonds), which then are perceived as having a false "intrinsic" value in the marketplace.  He argued that such exclusion was designed to oppress the working classes, and served no other socially beneficial goal.

Yet, despite persistent economic turbulence and political instability in many emerging markets, the global luxury goods market remains largely robust.  Indeed, the pursuit of luxury has been a sustained growth trend, even in societies that have experienced substantial political perils.

But is this trend just a blip, or a new long-term reality?

I contend that the drive toward luxury is a positive feature of normal human economic and psychological development, and not just a short-term phenomenon or an irrational manifestation of oppressive capitalism gone awry.

As any human society develops, its' collective needs and consumer preferences will gravitate from satisfying the lower-level human needs (such as general stores selling staple household goods) toward increasing demand for brands that represent quality, the respect of others and social achievement.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his groundbreaking 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review:

In essence, Maslow argued that all human behavior can be analyzed within the general framework of this pyramid, representing a dynamic progression toward higher thought processes and a greater degree of social functioning as one's temporal needs are met.

In other words, once a person's immediate physical needs and safety/security are satisfied  he will gravitate toward forming communities and families, and eventually, trend toward morality and achieve self-actualization.  Without one's lower-level needs met, that person -- and eventually his entire society -- will flounder.

From the perspective of predicting and analyzing consumer behavior, Maslow’s hierarchy can be thought of as also predicting macro-level social mobility and consumer preferences.  Such a model allows one to understand trends in demographics, and even develop sound long-term financial and investment strategies.

In other words, in a properly functioning society where social mobility is fluid, eventually, the retail options will become higher-end, and luxury goods retailers will move in.  The “local hardware store” will be replaced by a mass market retailer.  The mass market retailer eventually will be replaced by the shopping mall.  The shopping mall eventually becomes filled with luxury goods retailers.

Therefore, over time, as societies economically, psychologically and demographically evolve, luxury goods should become both desirable and attainable.

Financial data bears this trend out. Standard & Poors Global Consumer Enterprises Index is comprised of thirty of the largest publicly-traded companies in the GICS consumer discretionary sector that meet specific investability requirements.  The index provides exposure to leading publicly-listed companies in developed markets, which meet minimum international revenue exposure requirements.  100% of the companies included relate to consumer discretionary spending.  

Since this custom Index was created by S&P in 2009, it has demonstrated 5-year annualized returns of 25% growth, an astounding rate of return: 

Empirical consumer survey data bear out this trend, as well.  In a recent survey conducted by Empathica Consumer Insights Panel, the largest reported reason that consumers made a luxury purchase was to "reward themselves" (31.9%), although many consumers also indicated they were finally getting around to buying a luxury item that they had previously delayed purchasing (17.5%).  

Others bought a luxury good for a significant other (12.5%), or said they had extra money to spend and just wanted one (11.5%).  Despite the recent recession, three out of four consumers indicated that they perceived that there are the same or even more luxury brands available today than there were two to three years ago, making this luxury goods market more competitive than ever.  Interestingly, 28% of consumers also report that they will tell others about their luxury purchase through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or blogs.

Therefore, consumers consistently express a deep need to have the ability to "reward themselves" through the purchase of a luxury good that was not a true necessity.  The approval, perceptions and respect of others played a critical role, as well.

Over time, I predict that this drive toward luxury is here to stay, as it represents the innate human drive to progress toward higher levels of achievement and acquire the respect of others, and not simply irrational exuberance or the exploitation of artificial demand.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Isn't it Time for the U.S. Supreme Court to Broadcast Oral Arguments?

It is 2014, and much of the planet is becoming technologically accessible online.

With respect to the U.S. federal government's daily operations, the Library of Congress' card catalog is available online, Congress' floor debates and Committee hearings are broadcast 24/7/365 on C-SPAN and online, the White House has an active website and even Pope Francis has a fully interactive website and Twitter account.

Yet, one branch of the U.S. federal government has crept more slowly into the 21st Century than others.

After 200 years of regular sessions, the routine oral arguments of attorneys before the United States Supreme Court remain a cloistered, closed-door affair, for the most part.

Audio recordings of all oral arguments heard by the Supreme Court are available to the public at the end of each argument week and are posted online.

However, all other recording devices are strictly forbidden by Court rules.  This issue made headlines recently, when a rare event occurred--a public protest inside the U.S. Supreme Court, recorded by a visitor armed with a hidden camera phone.

The unruly visitor who demonstrated was arrested, but the individual who recorded the session surreptitiously cannot be prosecuted, as the Court's rules do not carry the force of law.

Indeed, if put to a vote before Congress, it is not clear that the Court's preference for such closed door access would be affirmed by both Houses, or signed by the President.

Indeed, fourteen trial courts have been selected for a "pilot study" to evaluate the merits of television cameras in courtrooms, and some of the more technologically-savvy Courts of Appeal (such as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California) broadcasts their oral arguments online the day after they are held.

The Coalition for Court Transparency is a group of public interest and media organizations demanding open access to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Their compelling argument is that the Supreme Court's decisions affect the lives of Americans everywhere, and that a large majority of the citizenry believe the oral arguments should be televised.  (Their video clip is embedded below).

Perhaps it is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rules and put the matter to a Congressional vote.