Monday, February 4, 2008

Lessons Learned From Sporks

If you made it through elementary school, chances are, you’ve used a spork at some point in your lifetime. Upon introduction to this odd tool, you likely thought to yourself “in theory, this makes a lot of sense.” After all – why have two separate utensils when you can just have one?

But as you moved on through life, this tool seldom reemerged. It seems that most people preferred to have two separate utensils, each to be used at the appropriate time and for its designated purpose, despite the convenience of the bundled item. Apparently, the multi-use tool often proves not to perform either of its jobs as efficiently as the separate utensils.

And therein lies the key differentiator between success and failure of bundling. The services or items bundled must produce equal or enhanced quality performance than the a la carte items or services.

Why are we talking about sporks?

The spork is a fitting parallel to the ‘bundling’ of execution and research that takes place in the financial industry – while it makes sense in theory, it fails in practice.

Like the spork, neither function is able to deliver optimal performance in the bundled model, and therefore, the bundled model is flawed and unsustainable. Like a TV with a built in VCR, the convenience and seeming practicality is undercut by the problems that occur when one of the bundled pieces or services fails. Upon failure, the entire system needs to be replaced, and worse, it can be difficult to assess which piece actually caused the issue so that future problems can be avoided.

The bundling of execution and research has the same inherent problem. Consider this:

Joe pays $.03 a share for execution, despite the fact that best execution pricing could get him execution for less than a penny. But Joe gets research as an ‘add-on’ because he pays $.03 a share, so he pays more for the ‘bundled’ service.

But now, Joe’s paying outrageous fees for minimal returns, and he doesn’t know why so he can’t figure out how to fix the problem. Is he paying too much for execution? Is the research he’s buying poor quality so it isn’t delivering trade ideas that will generate great returns? There’s no way to tell, because the services are bundled together, therefore masking which piece of the bundled product is the source of the failure. This is a detrimental disservice to Joe – and to all investors.

The UK has already implemented requirements for execution and research to be unbundled. It is still unclear whether or not the US will implement similar rules, but hopefully the SEC will acknowledge the inefficiencies that occur in the bundled model. Many firms are taking the shift in the UK as a cue that similar requirements will be imminent in the US, and are using this as an opportunity to offer more transparency to their investors.


In case you’re curious, here are some other bundled items that seem practical in theory, but never quite made it big:

Smell-O-Vision (movies with scent)
Flowbee (vaccum/haircut system)
Umbrella Hats
Windshield-wiper glasses