In scanning the coverage of the telecom recovery, we read about the excesses of the past and how we "know better" now. Everyone is singing the same tune: "Things are so different now." . . . "We'll never return to the 'old days.'" . . . It'll never be the same." And the sad part is, most people believe it.
The facts are we all want to go back to the good old days. We are all acting like we did in the good old days. The reactions are like the good old days -- just on a smaller, less obvious scale.
Overinvestment is still ripe -- do you really believe all these wireless strategies are going to pan out? The market is still crazy -- how else do you explain a near 100 percent run-up on a DSL stock based on a vapid announcement that the vendor tested its gear in Cisco Systems Inc.'s lab, or 60,000 postings about a stock on Yahoo's stock message boards in one day?
Everybody is jumping back in the water, clothes off, with glee.
If you don't buy into the craze, you get slammed for not taking part: investment bankers for not chasing the deals; stock brokers for not investing in stocks that jumped 30 percent in a week; venture capitalists for not going in on the deals everyone else is chasing; consultants for not buying into the "clear trends." If you take part, most people freely admit the telecom recovery is not fully factually based; it's emotionally based. Says one investment banker friend of mine, "It's all bogus, but what are you going to do? Investors want results." So the first thing that is wrong is that the "system" has lost any semblance of checks and balances.
A second problem is the lack of attention to fundamentals, which once more are being ignored by many in the industry. Overcapacity is still an issue. The major "stable" players in the market have sizable revenue at risk because of VoIP expansion, cable displacement services, cellular conversions and so on. This is not going to magically correct itself.
A third problem is the danger lurking in reactionary strategies -- when things go bad, the reaction can be knee-jerk and severe, as we've seen in the past few years when the industry was abruptly halted because of lack of spending. The fragility of so many players, and the impending effect of bankruptcy-driven pricing, is still hanging out there untested, and a quick reaction by a series of bad profit announcements could send us back down again.
Cisco CEO John Chambers has been saying for a while that trust and confidence need to be re-instilled in the system, and the last quarter has seen a regaining of these psychological foundations in telecom. But there's a difference between a slow, steady and therefore somewhat stable regrowth, and the rampant, out-of-control, rush-for-the-gold herd mentality that governed the telecom industry a few years ago.
There's a danger that the same forces that took our telecom industry ball and ran with it -- into the ground -- are rearing their heads again.
The insanity of the stock market and its get-rich-quick rewards is again starting to seep into the psyche of the way decisions are made, and that's the way a lot of money was made and lost in the last binge. The people driving that get their money off the front end -- venture capitalists whose investment can cash out early on, and investment bankers who make money on the deals. Just because there is easy money does not mean real value is being created.
You'd like to think that the adage, "Those who do not study history are bound to repeat it" would be true, but the problem is everyone knows what happened, and yet it's still returning. There are still fundamental issues to deal with. The market pressures on the telcos are going to increase, not decrease, as new disrupting technologies such as VoIP affect the top line of revenue.
So get out your favorite drink and toast to the wild ride, because it's beginning again. Let's just not be surprised if it has many of the same endings.
- Briere is CEO of TeleChoice, a US-based market strategy consultancy for the telecommunications industry.