Odds and Ends ...

Banking with relish

FIXING up your country? How about some new schools and a rail network, with ketchup and relish, hold the fries?

That, freely translated, is what James Wolfensohn, the iconoclastic investment banker who runs the World Bank, wants to see his once-stiff international lending institution provide: more flexible customer service.

Wolfensohn recently announced that he is sending some 300 of his top managers to business school to learn to think more like Burger King workers. They'll go, 15 at a time, to special six-week management courses at Harvard, and Stanford. Then they'll spend a seventh week "not in a hotel but living in a slum with a nongovernmental organization," Wolfensohn told an audience of bankers at a non-slum resort in Switzerland.

The training will mix World Bank executives with managers from third-world businesses, government, and financial institutions.

The president of the global lending bank has also shaken up its staid culture by removing 150 line managers from their jobs and having them re-apply, against competition, for the same or different jobs. His bottom line: The World Bank faces the same problem as Burger King, "improving the effectiveness with which it serves its customers."


Catching more rays

REMEMBER solar? It never really went away, any more than the sun does during night. But for many people around the world solar hot-water panels, photovoltaic cells, and wind generators became a case of out of sight out of mind once the '70s oil crises were over.

For those who once could afford roof panels (with help from government tax credits), the passing of the oil scares meant a scaling down of solar appliances to the odd patio light or two, with perhaps a solar fan in a summer pith helmet. That left some disappointed environmentalists to mutter darkly about conspiracies between big oil and politicians to keep solar down in favor of fossil fuels.

Well, now from the top of one of big oil's biggies comes a vote of support for solar. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, reported recently that his company plans to increase its sales of solar energy devices from $100 million at present to $1 billion over the next decade. Mr. Browne doesn't seem to believe solar is a fossil. Nor do we.

Stock tips

FOR some years we've weighed in on the side of those critics who wanted to see US stock markets go decimal. So we're delighted to be nearing the day when most of the eighth notes and 16th notes in Manhattan will be found at Juilliard, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.

As most of you know by now, the habit of quoting stock prices in one-eighths of a dollar derives from the old Spanish coinage known as pieces of eight, one-eighth of which was a real. You couldn't get away with tipping a New York cabbie with one of those. So it has long been illogical that you would tip your market maker via such a relatively large "spread" between the bid and asked prices quoted on the markets. Decimal pricing will likely save money for the average small buyer or seller.

Mutual fund prices have long been quoted in decimals (one cent increments) instead of eighths (12.5 cents). It's good to see the highly digitized stock markets (ever hear of anyone with l2.5 digits?) start to move in that direction.

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