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GP16Jul03: Kicking the Tires

How to Get the Global Province Letter.   Things come in bunches.  For two weeks now, we’ve been hounded by readers complaining that they can’t find out how to sign up their friends for the letter.  We’ve not heard from our old school chum and frequent, trenchant correspondent Les Epstein, who is too busy basking in the success of his bemusing novel San Remo Drive:  A Novel from Memory (a fine summer read by the way), but others have been more vocal. We’re obviously a bit too discreet, some would say opaque, about the workings of our website.

Rest assured, you can find a sign-up link on top of our homepage at www.globalprovince.com.  And at the very bottom of the Global Province letter you now will find directions for subscribing.  But you can also simply go to our subscription page.  Generally speaking, Mike, our webmaestro, promises to be a bit more obvious about how to get around the Province.  This will become even more important as we add new, specialized newsletters that some of you will want to receive, such as the global cooking missive we are now concocting.  Despite our lack of subscription commercials, we still added a plasma physicist, a computer professor, a few lawyers from Washington, and a neurosurgeon to our readers last week.  Obviously it takes a Ph.D. to make one’s way through our Global Maze. 

Wind in our Sails.  We’re sorry if we have been difficult.  Hopefully we have done a better job of sticking to our mission.  We cover everything under the sun in our letter, but our main goal is to connect you up to the future, for fun and profit.  As one consulting group says, we provide “Real leading edge thoughts on business and the world.”  So we were talking about wind power well before GE bought into the business.  That, incidentally, is what we do for our clients, be they business executives or investors:  Get them onto the next plateau. 

Annual Reports 2003 Coming Up.  You’ll find plenty of investment insights in our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2003, which will be posted on the Global Province in the next couple of weeks.

The 2002 batch of reports are riddled with paradox.  For a variety of reasons, their quality has gone downhill and so they are less read than ever.  And yet this year they signal dramatic, once-in-a-generation changes to those who give them a close reading, as the smartest investors and most thoughtful businesspeople always do.  New disclosure demands have been imposed upon them, and yet they are far less revealing about what counts, since the vitriolic regulatory atmosphere has caused business leaders to listen to their lawyers and clam up about most anything important.  Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the reports still tell investment firms and businesses where to put their dollars.  We find that if you look at enough documents (we always cover 500 reports or so), in any field of endeavor, even if they seem impenetrable, they will eventually give up their clues about the future.

The best reports, by the way, are now done outside the United States, where one still has the freedom to use some imagination.  We like particularly Vorwerk (www.vorwerk.de) in Germany; this company has been an annual report innovator for years.  It started down the right path due to a chap named Manfred Piwinger (if we remember his name correctly) who understood that the report is an international calling card that can help a growth company do business around the globe.  This year, in timely fashion, it chooses to discuss truth and lies even as it details its own rather satisfactory year.  Ambitious companies in the U.S. should also be using reports to open doors abroad. 

Kicking the Tires.  The Global Province Letter and our Annual Report on Annual Reports constantly seem to reveal that the world is not what the experts say it is.  Their preconceptions and methodology (epistemology if you a philosopher) always seem to confirm old truths and prejudices that they swear by, rather than the new realities that none of us have thought about.  The gap between the world as our renowned oracles see it and the world as it is has never appeared wider.

In this vein, we are about to add a new element to our Investor’s Digest section called “Kicking the Tires.”  We and friends will report there little observations about companies because we have gone out and looked around their stores, tried their products, talked to their employees, and gotten behind their screen doors.  To get a real sense of what is happening in the here and now, one has to walk around and get the lay of the land.

We will try the new, hot car ourselves to see if it runs.  And then we will pay attention to our mechanic who swears that the only car that is easy to repair is a Toyota, even though he favors American cars.  If we go out and find that the stores are empty and that everything is discounted, we will claim deflation is here even though the economists can prove otherwise from their aggregate numbers.  If a venerated electric utility keeps having breakdowns in the same spot several times a year, every year, we will tell Fortune it is not this planet’s best power company.  And if we see fish returning to San Francisco Bay and the Hudson River, we will surely declare that the world is not yet at an end and that environmental progress may accelerate.  In our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2003, tire-kicking leads us to praise Walmart—with several caveats.

We just got our AAA card in the mail, and the cost accountants have taken it down to a sliver of its former self.  It’s becoming less than a slice of onion.  Years ago we counseled chief executives not to use thin, gritty paper in their annual reports.  My partner said, “Flabby paper is worse than a limp handshake,” because it sends that subliminal message you don’t want to send.  For many of us the membership card is the most tangible thing we receive from AAA every year.  Does it make sense to disappear it?  Is AAA evaporating?  Those are the kind of questions you ask when you kick the tires.

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