Archive for the ‘The Corporate State’ Category.

Writing A More Accurate Headline: Phoenix Cities Take Big Loss on Superbowl

For reasons I will not get into yet again, cheer-leading local sports subsidies is essentially built into the DNA of most big city newspapers.

Last week our paper ran this headline:

'15 Super Bowl visitors boosted tax revenue by double digits

Wow!

Combined sales tax revenue for January and February totaled $14 million in roughly similar categories for restaurants, bars, hotels and retail in downtown Phoenix, Westgate and Scottsdale. That was up 19.5 percent over the same time a year ago.

That sounds awesome.  Take that, all you public subsidy skeptics.   Giving the Superbowl the benefit of the doubt and ignoring things like growth and the really good weather this winter, that is $2.28 million increase in taxes which we will generously ascribe all to the Superbowl.  And probably mostly taken from non-Arizonans, so its like free money.

It is only later in the article that the paper sheepishly inserts this:

Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale and tourism bureaus from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa combined to spend more than $5.6 million on Super Bowl events and public safety.

So we spent $5.6 million (probably under-estimated) to make $2.28 million (probably not all Superbowl related).  The headline was thus a total crock of Sh*t but typical of how, in small ways and large, the media helps push for bigger and bigger government.  I am sure the hotels and restaurants did well -- if so, then they are free to form a consortium to pay for the Superbowl's cost next time.  Or better yet, have some other sucker city host it and I will happily watch on TV.

Update:  I missed this part:

The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority and Glendale provided a $6.2 million rebate to the NFL on Super Bowl ticket sales, said Kevin Daniels, authority chief financial officer.

I can't tell from the article if that $6.2 million is or is not in the numbers above.  I presume it is netted out before hand so that the gain in sales tax would be $6.2 million higher than reported above if this provision did not exist.  But this does mean that another valid headline would be:

Nearly 75% of Superbowl Sales Tax Gains Given to the NFL

Lack of Hotel is Not a Market Failure -- It Was a Market Success

For some reason, it appears that building hotels next to city convention centers is a honey pot for politicians.  I am not sure why, but my guess is that they spend hundreds of millions or billions on a convention center based on some visitation promises.  When those promises don't pan out, politicians blame it on the lack of a hotel, and then use public money for a hotel.  When that does not pan out, I am not sure what is next.  Probably a sports stadium.  Then light rail.  Then, ?  It just keeps going and going.

I thought we in Phoenix took some kind of prize with this:

The city-owned Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel has lost so much money — more than $28.2 million total — that some city leaders say the hotel must be put in the hands of the private sector.

They also worry that the hotel, Arizona's largest with 1,000 rooms, could harm other projects in the downtown core.

When Phoenix leaders opened the Sheraton in 2008, they proclaimed it would be a cornerstone of downtown's comeback. They had one goal in mind: lure big conventions and tourism dollars. Officials argued the city needed the extra hotel beds to support its massive taxpayer-funded convention center a block away.

But apparently things are even worse in Baltimore:

The city-owned Hilton Baltimore convention center hotel lost $5.6 million last year — a worse performance than 2013 despite its close location to Camden Yards and the Orioles' playoff run.

It was the seventh consecutive year that the hotel has underperformed financially, according to an audit of financial statements presented Wednesday to the city's Board of Estimates. Under the deal's initial projections, the hotel was supposed to be making $7 million in profit by now — pumping that mone into the city's budget....

The hotel has lost more than $70 million since it opened.

I am sure that politicians in both cities called the lack of a hotel a market failure.  But now we see that it was a market success.  All the companies who chose not to build a hotel with private money obviously knew what they were doing, and only the political benefits of pandering the the public at large and a few special interests in specific made it seem like an attractive investment to city politicians.  Which is all pretty unsurprising, since hotels have pretty much been built off every exit ramp in this country, so there seems to be no private inhibition towards building hotels -- just towards building hotels in bad locations.

Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.

TDK-joker-grenades

 

 

Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?

OK, I Relent: I Will Support A Carbon Tax If Y'all Will Stop the Torrent of Stupid

President Obama is preparing to unleash a Colorado-River-sized torrent of stupid.  He wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on goofy green energy projects that will have an indiscernible affect on world temperatures but will have a very robust effect on some crony bottom lines.   Here is one example:

As part of President Obama’s plans to combat climate change, the White House announced a program on Friday for the U.S. Department of Energy to train 75,000 people to work in the solar power industry by 2020, many of whom will be part of a military veterans jobs initiative called Solar Ready Vets.

Seriously, is the training costs of workers really a substantial portion of a solar installation?

Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, which publishes the annual National Solar Jobs Census, said that Obama’s announcement will not likely increase the size of the solar industry’s workforce but will instead ensure that the industry will be able to find highly skilled workers to fill jobs.

“We’re experiencing difficulty finding more skilled and qualified workers to install and do design work required,” she said, adding that the industry’s workforce has a “skills gap” as well-trained electricians and other workers go back to other construction jobs as the economy gains momentum.

I will translate that trade-group speak for you:  We like to pay our workers less than similarly-skilled construction workers so we lose a lot of skilled workers to higher paying construction companies. This program will not add any net employment to the economy but will help us keep wages lower by increasing the supply of qualified workers.

I can't help but think of Henry Ford, who famously raised the wages of his employees substantially.  The fake story is that he did this so all his workers could buy his product.   The real reason he did this was that he had horrendous labor turnover problems.  Like the solar industry, he was training folks who then left for higher paying jobs.  So he had to raise his wages to retain trained people.  How history would have changed if Ford had instead been able to call Obama and ask him to have the taxpayer pay to feed him with new, trained workers so he wouldn't have to raise his wage rates!

Seriously, did a bunch of technocrats get together and study the whole solar industry and come to the conclusion that solar installation skills were the keystone problem that was holding back the whole industry?  Of course not.  The solar industry will sink or swim based on panel costs and efficiencies.   What happened is someone said, "well the public always seems to like job training programs.  Those poll well."  And then they called the solar crony association or whatever it is called and they said, "sure, we would love to have taxpayers pay some of our training costs.  Thanks, we will be very supportive." And then someone said, "well, won't the Republicans pitch a fit over this?" And then someone had the brilliant idea of making it a veterans program -- "Republicans love soldiers, that will help defuze their opposition."  And an expensive crony giveaway was born.

About 5 years ago I said I would be willing to accept a carbon tax whose proceeds were used to reduce various labor tax rates (e.g. social security).  Substituting an energy consumption tax for a labor consumption tax was probably at least neutral and maybe even a net positive.

Now, I want to come back to that idea.  I don't believe any more than I did then that CO2-driven global warming will be catastrophic.  In fact, I am more confident than ever that while CO2-induced warming is a reality, the sensitivity of temperatures to CO2 levels is relatively low.  But please, I am willing to fully support a carbon tax that offsets some other existing tax if only we will stop all this stupid crony useless green energy stuff.  At least with a carbon tax, the markets will reduce fossil fuel use in the most efficient ways possible.  As opposed to programs like this one that will reduce fossil fuel use not at all but will cost a lot of money.

Cronyism, State by State

I get sent a lot of infographics and I generally just delete them but I thought this one was pretty good.  The largest recipients of corporate welfare from state governments.  Perhaps appropriately given the tilt of our economy here, our largest recipient in AZ is a real estate developer.

click to enlarge

The Face of Cronyism

Via Reason:

Billionaire John Catsimatidis is NY: Geraldo Rivera Hosts Wife Erica's 40th Birthday Partyworking to slip a biofuel mandate that would add $150 million to New Yorkers’ heat expenses into the state budget just as a company he owns completes construction of the largest biofuel plant in the region.

The New York Post reports that Catsimatidis’ lobbyists are putting the pressure on State senators to slip a provision that would require all heating oil sold in New York to contain “2 percent or more of soybean oil and/or spent vegetable oils.”

He is a close friend of the Clintons.  Expect a total crony feeding fest should Hillary get elected President,

Wow -- Two Obama Administration Economists Write Paper Saying Obama Administration Policy Was Great

I followed a link the other day to this academic paper purporting to show that the bailout of GM and Chrysler was a success.  I was flabbergasted to see that the authors are Austan D. Goolsbee and Alan B. Krueger.  WTF?  These folks were part of the Obama Administration.  This is their own policy they are passing historical judgement on.  This is roughly equivalent to a economics journal seeking a paper on the success or failure of Obamacare and having Valerie Jarrett write it.  How does this kind of conflict of interest pass any kind of muster?

I only skimmed the paper.  I know these are two smart guys but it seems to include exactly the sort of facile analysis you would expect from a political hack, not two smart economists.  I can't believe these guys would have accepted many of the assumptions they make here had they not been directly involved.  Just to pick two things at random:

  • They seem to stick with the assumption that millions of jobs would have simply gone *poof* had the government not intervened.  Yes, this happened at Solyndra, but in most cases industries operate almost seamlessly in bankruptcy.  The odds are, for example, that you have flown on an airline in Chapter 11 and didn't even know it.  They make a specific argument that somehow it would be bad to have both in bankruptcy at the same time, but I can remember several times when there were multiple major airlines in bankruptcy.  In fact, if both went bankrupt at the same time, one could argue it would lessen their market share loss since a major competitor was in the same boat.  To the extent that the companies would have continued to operate under Chapter 11, which is 99.9% likely, then all the government did was insert itself into the bankruptcy process to overrule laws about who gets what in a bankruptcy to redirect spoils to their favored constituencies
  • Yes, GM and Chrysler are doing OK now, but they usually do OK at the top of a business cycle.  To my eye though, nothing fundamentally changed about how they are managed and operate.  The same structural and cultural problems that existed before exist today.  The same under-utilization of talented workers and valuable assets that existed before exists today.  No real reckoning occurred -- in fact the bailout looked to me at the time as an exercise to use taxpayer money to avoid a true housecleaning.  These companies have done OK, but what would they have done with a more thorough housecleaning?

When Media Cheers for Corporate Welfare -- Local Film Subsidies

I am always amazed that the media will credulously run stories against "corporate welfare" for oil companies (which usually mostly includes things like LIFO accounting and investment tax credits that are not oil industry specific) but then beg and plead for us taxpayers to subsidize movie producers.

I wish I understood the reason for the proliferation of government subsidies for film production.  Is it as simple as politicians wanting to hobnob with Hollywood types?  Our local papers often go into full sales mode for sports team subsidies, but that is understandable from a bottom-line perspective -- sports are about the only thing that sells dead-tree papers any more, and so more local sports has a direct benefit on local newspapers.  Is it the same reasoning for proposed subsidies for Hollywood moguls?

Whatever the reason, our local paper made yet another pitch for throwing tax dollars at movie producers

Notwithstanding a recent flurry of Super Bowl-related documentaries and commercials that got 2015 off to a good start, Arizona appears to be falling behind in a competitive and lucrative business. The entertainment industry pays well, supports considerable indirect employment and offers the chance for cities and states to shine on a global stage.

Seriously?  I am sure setting up the craft table pays better than catering a party at my home, but it is a job that lasts 2 months and is then gone.  Ditto everything else on the production.   And I am sick of the "shines on the world stage thing."  Who cares?  And is this really even true?  The movie Chicago was filmed in Toronto -- did everyone who watched Chicago suddenly want to go to Toronto?  The TV animated series Archer gets a big subsidy from the state of Georgia.  Have they even mentioned Georgia in the series?  Given the tone of the show, would they even want to be mentioned?

When government subsidizes an industry, it is explicitly saying that resources are better and more productively invested in the subsidized industry than in other industries in which the money would have been spent in a free market.  Does the author really have evidence that the money I would have spent to improve the campgrounds we operate in Arizona is better taken from me and spent to get a Hollywood movie shot here instead?  Which investment will still be here 6 months from now?

Arizona is one of 11 states that don't offer tax incentives, primarily in the form of income-tax credits, and that's the core of the problem. There's also no state film office to help out-of-state crews obtain filming permits, locate vendors, hire temporary staff and so on.

Arizona's tax incentives expired after 2010 and the film office closed in the wake of a recession that hit the state especially hard and necessitated tough spending choices. Although bills to revive those programs have been introduced, they're not given high odds of success in the current session as the governor and lawmakers struggle to close $1.5 billion in deficits over this year and next.

"Right now, there's nobody to call, the phone isn't being answered and nobody responds to e-mails," said Mike Kucharo, a local producer and director who serves as the state-government liaison for the Arizona Production Association, an entertainment trade and networking group. "We need a film office."

Yeah for us!  While all the lemmings in other states bid up the price of a few politicians being able to get their picture with Hollywood types on a production set, we have chosen not to play.  Good for us.  Only an industry insider clown with a straight face could say that we need a taxpayer-funded film office.  Really?  Do we need a taxpayer-funded florist office to attract flower sales?

Years ago I wrote an article calling sports team subsidies a prisoners dilemma game, where the only winning move was not to play.  The NFL has 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities.  Without subsidies the NFL would have ... 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities, and taxpayers would have saved billions of dollars.  The same is true for film:

Indeed, the number and size of incentives escalated from just two states offering $2 million in combined incentives in 2003 to 40 states offering $1.2 billion just six years later, according to the Tax Foundation.

So subsidies have gone up by over a billion dollars a year, and yet roughly the same films are being made.  This is one of the best examples I can think of where politicians are using taxpayer money to increase their personal prestige.  The AZ Republic should be embarrassed they are out front actively encouraging this behavior.

Postscript:  For all of its flaws in teaching real-world relevant business topics, the Harvard Business School was very good, at least when I was attending it, at teaching business strategy.  My memory may be fuzzy here, but I am pretty sure that "40 other groups have all jumped into this activity and have ramped up their spending by a factor of 50 in just six years and all 40 competitors are really focused on winning almost irregardless of the price they pay" is not a very good pitch for investing money in a new field.

Postscript #2:  All of this is a wonton violation of the AZ state Constitution, though of course big government advocates are really good at totally ignoring Constitutional limits on government power.  Here is what our Constitution says:

Section 7. Neither the state, nor any county, city, town, municipality, or other subdivision of the state shall ever give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation, or become a subscriber to, or a shareholder in, any company or corporation, or become a joint owner with any person, company, or corporation, except as to such ownerships as may accrue to the state by operation or provision of law or as authorized by law solely for investment of the monies in the various funds of the state.

Update:  From the Manhattan Institute, film tax breaks return 30 cents for every dollar spent

Similar to most targeted tax breaks, movie production incentives routinely fail to deliver on the economic promises made by their proponents. Supporters frequently claim movie incentives create jobs and lead to net gains in tax revenue. However, data from several states find movie production incentives generate less than 30 cents for every lost dollar in tax revenue.

Providing tax breaks specifically to the film industry is an example of government working to choose winners and losers in the marketplace. States could attract almost any industry if they paid for a quarter to a third of its expenditures, but such a policy would be fiscally unsustainable. A better system would be to lower state tax rates for everyone, encouraging economic growth.

Film is a particularly poor industry to subsidize because it does not create long-term employment and other lasting economic benefits for states. Even though a well-made film might boost tourism, productions only offer short-term employment and the workers are highly specialized. Production and workers can easily move from one location to wherever better deals are offered.

Update #2:  The AZ Free Enterprise Club was on this last month

Great Moments in Lobbying

A reader sent me this list of tax exemptions in the state of Washington.  Obviously people you never expected to have lobbyists have good lobbyists.  Mint farmers?  Click to enlarge:

click to enlarge

Competition via Influencing Government

I have mentioned a number of times my chicken or the egg arguments with Progressives on the solution to cronyism.  Is the problem that government power exists to influence markets, and as long as it exists people will bid to control it?  Or is it possible to wield massive make-or-break government power over industry rationally, and only the rank immorality and corrupt speech of corporations stands in the way.  The former argues for a reduction in government power, the latter for more regulation of corporations and their ability to participate in the political process.

I believe this is an example in favor of the "power is inherently corrupting" argument.  No corporation lobbied for NOx rules on diesel engines.  They all fought it tooth and nail.  But once these regulations existed, engine makers are all trying to use the laws to gut their competition:

In 1991, the EPA ignored complaints from several makers of non-road engines that rivals were cheating, in order to save fuel, on emissions rules for oxides of nitrous (NOx). Then environmental groups took up the same complaint, whereupon the agency demanded face-saving consent decrees with numerous engine makers, including two Volvo affiliates.

In essence, the engine makers apologized by agreeing in 1999 to accelerate by a single year compliance with a new emissions standard scheduled to take effect in 2006.

Meanwhile, with another NOx standard looming in 2010, Navistar sued the EPA claiming rival engine-makers were seeking to meet the rule with a defective technology. In turn, Navistar’s competitors sued claiming the EPA was unfairly favoring a defective technology pursued by Navistar (these are only the barest highlights of what became a truck-makers’ legal holy war).

While all this was going on, a Navistar joint-venture partner, Caterpillar, complained that 7,262 Volvo stationary engines made in Sweden before 2006 had violated the 1999 consent decree. Now let’s credit Caterpillar with a certain paperwork ingenuity: The Volvo engines were not imported to the U.S. and were made by a Volvo affiliate that wasn’t a party to the consent decree. EPA itself happily certified the engines under its then-current NOx standard, only changing its mind four years later, prodded by a competitor with a clear interest in damaging Volvo’s business.

To complete the parody, a federal district court would later agree that the 1999 consent terms “do not clearly apply” to the engines in question, but upheld an EPA penalty anyway because Volvo otherwise might enjoy a “competitive advantage” against engines to which the consent decree applied.

As a side note, this is from the "oops, nevermind" Emily Litella School of Regulation:

Let it be said that the EPA’s NOx regulation must have done some good for the American people, though how much good is hard to know. The EPA relies on dubious extrapolations to estimate the benefits to public health. What’s more, the agency appears to have stopped publishing estimates of NOx pollution after 2005. Maybe that’s because the EPA’s focus has shifted to climate change, and its NOx regulations actually increase greenhouse emissions by increasing fuel burn.

This is the Problem With All Government "Fixes" for Supposed Market Failures

Bob Murphy on occupational licensing, via Cafe Hayek

It is a paradox of our age that the interventionists think the public is too stupid to consult Angie’s List before hiring a lawyer, and so they need politicians to weed out the really bad ones by requiring law licenses. Yet, who determines whether a person (often a lawyer!) is qualified to become a politician? Why, the same group of citizens who were too stupid to pick their own lawyers.

The Parasite Economy

I had an argument with someone of the Left last night.  We both agreed that crony government protections and favors of businesses were one of the worst problems in the country.  But we couldn't agree on solutions.   It was a chicken and egg thing.  She thought corporations were at fault for seeking them.  I argued that the problem was given the government the power in the first place to grant such requests.  She thought the only way to fight it was by empowering government to put more restrictions on business.  My argument was that increasing the power of government to intervene in the economy only increased the problem.    No resolution.  I run into this all the time and need to think my way through a better way of expressing my concerns.

Anyway, I am reminded of all this because Stossel has a nice piece on the parasite economy and cronyism.

Postscript:  I can say from this discussion that OFA and Media Matters and Common Cause and the like have really done their job on the Kochs because this particular person was absolutely convinced the #1 best thing we could do to improve the future of America was to shut the Kochs up and prevent them from spending any more money on politics and speech.   My son says that is nearly impossible to argue any issue at all on campus without someone laying into the Kochs at some point in the conversation.   I find this whole tendency to conduct politics by vilifying individuals rather than discussing issues -- individuals with absolutely no political position -- totally depressing.  But it must work, because the Republicans did it too, in fact really pioneered this when they went after George Soros and made him the the secret villain behind everything Conservatives hated.   People like Rush Limbaugh may get on the Left nowadays for vilifying the Kochs but go listen to his radio shows from 5 or 10 years ago -- he couldn't go three sentences without saying "Soros".

$400 Million Dollars in Public Money for a Building Used 30 Hours a Year

I love to watch the NFL but that organization and its team owners are some of the worst cronies in the country.  A huge portion of their teams' increase in net worth over the last 30 years has come from public funding of its stadiums.  These NFL stadiums are used by their teams for 8 regular season games and at most 2 pre-season games a year, or for a total of about 30 hours a year.  Taxpayers are being forced to buy buildings with a 0.3% occupancy.

St. Louis is the next to propose a taxpayer fleecing, proposing to spend $400 million before they have even paid off the enclosed stadium they built 20 years ago.  What a farce.

Years and years ago I described this as an awful sort of prisoner's dilemma game.  If governments colluded in a promise not to subsidize teams, we would still have NFL teams in roughly the same cities but without the billions of dollars in taxpayer money having been passed on to 32 billionaires.

The Non-Crony Pledge

Three cheers for Koch Industries:

“We oppose ALL subsidies, whether existing or proposed, including programs that benefit us, which are principally those that are embedded in our economy, such as mandates,” wrote Philip Ellender, president Koch’s government affairs division, in a Wednesday letter to members of Congress.

Ellender singled out the wind production tax credit as particularly deleterious. But unlike that provision, some of the tax breaks included in the House package benefit activities in which Koch and its subsidiaries are heavily invested.

Koch subsidiary George Pacific, for instance, qualifies for a tax break for the production of cellulosic biofuels. Another subsidiary, Flint Hills Resources, operates biofuel production facilities that could benefit from another of the provisions.

Those tax breaks could improve Koch’s bottom line, but the company sees federal tax preferences in general as economically harmful.

“Koch doesn’t view these as ‘benefits’ even if they are in industries we’re in,” explained a source familiar with the company’s public affairs strategy. “They are wasteful and market distorting, and allow other firms to run businesses that aren’t making money any other way.”

Government Accounting: The Report That Says Green Loan Program is Profitable is A Total Joke

The government claims to be making huge profits on its greentech loan program, despite losses at companies like Solyndra.

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

Even Kevin Drum calls partial BS on this:

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately.

I call further BS.  It turns out this program is actually losing money, not making money.

  1. This "study" is a classic case of assuming your conclusion. The reason the risky parts of the portfolio would lose money is if they don't pay off over the next 20 years or so they have to run. But all the study says is "The $5 billion to $6 billion figure was calculated based on the average rates and expected returns of funds dispersed so far, paid back over 20 to 25 years." In other words, if the loans turn out not to be risky, they won't be risky. LOL.
  2. I bet they are not accounting for things like Ivanpah, there the holders of the government loan are looking to pay off the government loan with .. a government subsidy. So if you squint, the loan to Ivanpah looks profitable, but no rational person would come to that conclusion about the program as a whole.
  3. Ivanpah is just a subset of a larger problem. Companies like Tesla get government subsidies (and their customers get subsidies as well) from dozens of sources. Is it really a win for taxpayers if they pay back their government loan with government money?
  4. They count the 37 basis points above treasury rates that they charge as "profit". This is crazy. I run a fairly large business. No business is getting Tbills +37 BP loans. Heck, since Tbills are at about 0%, this means they are loaning money to private concerns at less than 1%. This is a crazy large subsidy.  I could make money in over a 2-5 year period in just about anything if I could borrow at effectively 0%.
  5. Worst of all, they are not using present value.  Let's say their average spread from the Bloomberg article is 100 BP over treasuries.  That means that ignoring loan losses on a $32 billion portfolio they are making a spread of $320 million a year.  Over 20-25 years that is $6-7 billion.  Less some large loan losses that is $5-6 billion.  But notice I never discounted.  This is just adding up nominal interest spreads over 25 years.  This is insane.  Absolutely no private investor on the planet would think like this.  If you discounted the interest spread payments at any reasonable risk-adjusted rate**, then the net present value may already be less than losses in Solyndra and others and thus already in the hole, even without considering future losses.  This report is an embarrassing political exercise, not a serious economic analysis.

All of this leaves out the inherent cronyism of the whole exercise.

 

** I would argue that in many of these loans, and despite interest rates charged in the 0-2% range, the government was taking an equity risk.  Worse than equity risks -- these are essentially venture capital investments risks with T-bill returns (note the one private comment on the returns in the Bloomberg article is from a venture capital investor in greentech).   The taxpayers are bearing all the risk but getting none of the returns.  Any discount rate for these risks under 15-20% is far too low.

The Graveyard of Cronyism

Phoenix businesses add hundreds of jobs every week.  However, the only jobs that every get subsidized are in sexy businesses.  That is because the subsidies themselves make zero sense, from an economic or public policy standpoint.   The point is not to create jobs, but to create press releases and talking points for politicians and their re-election campaigns.

And there is little that is sexier to politicians spending taxpayer money to get themselves re-elected than solar and Apple computer.  Which brings us to this plant in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), which I am calling the Graveyard of Cronyism.

GT-Advanced

This plant was built by First Solar to build solar panels.  I would have to quit my day job and work full-time to figure out all the ways this plant was subsidized by taxpayers -- special feed-in tariffs for First Solar customers, government tax breaks for solar panel purchases, direct government subsidies and grant programs for solar panel purchases, the DOE loan guarantee program for solar... etc.  In addition, the City of Mesa committed $10 million in infrastructure improvements to lure First Solar to the site.  I can't find what economic development incentives there were but there must have been tax abatements.  In addition, the company was promised a further $20 million in economic development funds from the County, but fortunately (unlike most such deals) the funds were tied to hitting employment milestones and were never paid.  First Solar never produced a single panel at the plant before it realized it had no need for it.

More recently, Apple and sapphire glass manufacturer GT Advanced bought the empty plant from First Solar.  And again there was much rejoicing among politicians locally.  Think of it -- Two great press release opportunities for politicians in just three years for the same plant!  I never feel like we get the whole story on the development deals offered for these things but this is what we know:

Brewer and the Arizona Legislature approved tax breaks related to sales taxes on energy at manufacturing plants. The state also put the Apple/GT plant into a special tax zone that pays a 5 percent commercial property tax rate. Most Arizona companies pay a 19 percent rate this year and an 18.5 percent next.

[In addition,] Apple was slated to received [sic] $10 million from the Arizona Competes Fund for the Mesa factory. The Arizona Commerce Authority — the privatized state economic development agency which administers the $25 million sweeten-the-deal fund along with Gov. Jan Brewer — said neither Apple nor GT Advanced (Nasdaq: GTAT) have received any money.

Well, it turns out that artificial sapphire sounds really cool (a pre-requisite for crony deals) but it is not so great for cell phones.  Apple went another way and did not use the technology on iPhone 6 -- not just for timing reasons but because there are real issues with its performance.

So a second crony buys the plant and does not even move in.

What's next?  I am thinking the best third tenant at the sexy-crony nexus would be an EV battery plant, or even better yet Tesla.  It is too bad Fiskar motors went out of business so soon or they would be the perfect next crony fail for this site.

More Bipartisan Cronyism in Phoenix: Subsidizing Real Estate so that Future Transit Expenditures Can Be Justified

Yuk.  $14 million giveaway to developer

Last week, Phoenix City Council members approved a deal for the $82 million high-rise, mixed-use Phoenix Central Station. The development at Central Avenue and Van Buren Street will include about 475 apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

As part of the deal, Phoenix would give the developer, Smith Partners, a controversial tax-abatement incentive called a Government Property Lease Excise Tax for the tower portion of the project. The agreement allows developers to avoid paying certain taxes through deals that title their land or buildings to a government entity with an exclusive right to lease the property back.

In this case, the city already owns the land, but the developer will eventually take title over the building. The arrangement allows them to not pay property taxes for 25 years, which a city official estimates would be $600,000 to $900,000 per year based on conversations with the developer. However, the developer will make smaller lease payments back to the city, and, after eight years, pay taxes on those lease payments.

The agreement requires the developer to pay the city a portion of its revenue, which will net the city an estimated $4.4 million over the first 25 years

The difference from the $4.4 million they will actually pay and 25 years at $750,000 in property taxes is about $10 million (fudging concerns about present value and such).  I used to be OK with anything that reduced taxes for anyone, but now I have come to realize that discounting taxes for one preferred crony just raises taxes for the rest of us.  [Props to Republican Sal Deciccio for being one of two to vote against this]

Here is my guess as to what is going on here.  Phoenix paid a stupid amount of money to build a light rail line that costs orders of magnitude more money than running the same passengers in buses.  One of the justifications for this gross over-expenditure on the light rail boondoggle was that it would spur development along the line.  But it is not really doing so.  Ridership on light rail has been stagnant for years, as has been transit ridership (most of the light rail ridership gains simply cannibalized from bus service, shifting low-cost-to-serve bus riders to high-cost-to-serve train riders).

So they need to be able to show transit-related development to justify future light rail expansions.  Thus, this subsidized development along the rail line.

I will make a firm bet.  Within 5 years we will have Phoenix politicians touting this development as a result of the light rail investment with nary a mention of the $10 million additional taxpayer subsidy it received.

The Corporate State Is Winning

Successful businesses often seek to cement their position and block new competition by running to government for legislation that blocks new entrants and/or makes it harder to compete for smaller upstarts.  One only need to look at the taxi cartel trying to kill Uber and Lyft to see exactly how this operates.  It is working:

small-biz5-14

 

This is a strategy that works with both Republican and Democrat politicians, which may explain why both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party shared opposition to cronyism among their complaints.

Of course there are other factors than just powerful incumbents blocking new competitors.  In California, regulations that make it just debilitating to try to run a business are also driven by the tort bar, which has created a thriving business in extracting settlements from companies over miniscule rules violations.  And the California government obliges by shifting the rules constantly, so companies are both constantly vulnerable and have to pay other attorneys to strengthen their immune systems against these assaults.

Let's Not Paint the Toyota Move to Texas Too Much as A Drive For Free Markets

I totally understand why Toyota would want to leave California.   I often wonder why any manufacturing business would remain in California.  I actually have thought about whether there is a private equity opportunity to buy California manufacturers and make money by moving them to lower cost jurisdictions.

I am particularly sympathetic this year.  We have four or five campground opportunities where we could be making money this year by making investments in these facilities.  But these initiatives would all take my time, and my time has been 110% devoted to catching up on regulatory compliance issues, particularly in California.   Every state has stupid compliance requirements, but California stands out for two reasons

  1. It has a lot, lot more of these requirements
  2. The cost of non-compliance is way higher than in other states.  You don't just get an order to clean up your act in 60 days, you get slammed with tens of thousands of dollars of legal fees from predatory law firms that have been given a hunting license by the state legislature to seek out and reward themselves when they find non-compliance minutia (e.g. numbers on the paycheck in the wrong font size).

So  I totally understand why Toyota is coming to Texas.  But also note that the state of Texas handed Toyota tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money for the move, money for which smaller and less politically-connected companies don't qualify.  This corporate relocation incentive game is one of the worst uses of tax money, as it produces no new economic activity, but simply shifts it across arbitrary lines on the map.

Tesla: The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Cronyism

On the one hand, Tesla feasts on government subsidies and giveaways, e.g. here.

On the other hand, Tesla fights against crony protections of incumbent businesses, e.g. here.

The World's Most Famous Investor Is Now Investing in...

...government access.  Clearly Warren Buffet saw the writing on the wall in 2009, that the way to make money in the US was no longer to build products and factories but to invest in lobbying to get crony advantages and giveaways.

click to enlarge

This Administration and Senate makes all kinds of progressive noises, but all the while they are running perhaps the greatest expansion of cronyism in US history.  And the smart money knows it.

 

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

Who's To Blame for the Corporate State?

It's a topic we have discussed many times on this blog -- are politicians at fault for handing out taxpayer money, or are corporations at fault for taking it?  Are businesses at fault for asking for special favors or politicians at fault for granting them.  This article from the Federalist discusses this conundrum in the context of sports stadium subsidies.

Its a chicken and egg problem that I see more and more, and my general answer is everyone.  The real answer is that the fault lies with having given government these powers in the first place.  If the government has the power to transfer wealth and regulate by decree, then some businesses are going to access that power to squash their competitors and politicians are going to use that power to get reelected.

The classic retort that "if we only had the right people in office..." wears thin.  There are no right people.  Good people are naturally corrupted by the incentives of the office.   Further, they are increasingly weeded out of the political process -- when wielding power to aid political cronies is a prerequisite for winning office, then it is hard to fathom how we possibly could ever get people in power who will not ... wield power to aid political cronies.   According to the Left, this Administration was to be, finally, the perfect group that would wield power as it was meant to be wielded.  And the corporate state is worse than ever.

Government Regulation and Incumbent Business Protection

Scratch "consumer" protection laws and you will almost always find the laws are really aimed a protecting incumbent businesses and traditional business models.  This time from France:

To the surprise of virtually everyone in France, the government has just passed a law requiring car services like Uber to wait 15 minutes before picking up passengers. The bill is designed to help regular taxi drivers, who feel threatened by recently-introduced companies like Uber, SnapCar and LeCab. Cabbies in the Gallic nation require formidable time and expense to get their permits and see the new services -- which lack such onerous requirements -- as direct competitors.

This is the interesting political ground where the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party have a lot of overlap.  That is why the Chamber of Commerce, which represents all these incumbent businesses, is working with both parties to keep the cozy corporatists in power against challenges from the Left and Right.  If you are a business owner, eschew the Chamber and join the NFIB and support the IJ.

Is Cronyism Private Enterprise's Fault or the Government's?

Oddly enough, this is perhaps the most frequent argument I have with people on the Left in cocktail party conversations.

It begins this way -- some abuse of "private enterprise" is cited.  Almost every time, I have to point out that the abuse in question could not occur if private companies were not availing themselves of government's coercive power to [fill in the blank: step on competitors, limit choice, keep prices high, rake in subsidies, etc.] Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story is very much in this mold, blaming bad outcomes that result in government interventions on free market capitalism.

Kevin Drum has a great example of this.  Asthma inhalers are expensive because certain companies used the government to ban less expensive competitive products.

Nick Baumann picks up the story from there:

The pharma consortium transformed from primarily an R&D outfit searching for substitutes for CFC-based inhalers into a lobbying group intent on eliminating the old inhalers. It set up shop in the K Street offices of Drinker Biddle, a major DC law firm. Between 2005 and 2010, it spent $520,000 on lobbying. (It probably spent even more; as a trade group, it's not required to disclose all of its advocacy spending.) Meanwhile, IPAC lobbied for other countries to enact similar bans, arguing that CFC-based inhalers should be eliminated for environmental reasons and replaced with the new, HFC-based inhalers.

The lobbying paid off. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an outright ban on many CFC-based inhalers starting in 2009. This June, the agency's ban on Aerobid, an inhaler used for acute asthma, took effect. Combivent, another popular treatment, will be phased out by the end of 2013.

In other words, pharmaceutical companies didn't just take advantage of this situation, they actively worked to create this situation. Given the minuscule impact of CFC-based inhalers on the ozone layer, it's likely that an exception could have been agreed to if pharmaceutical companies hadn't lobbied so hard to get rid of them. The result is lower-quality inhalers and fantastically higher profits for Big Pharma.

Rosenthal has a lot more detail in her piece about how the vagaries of patent law make this all even worse, and it's worth reading. But she misses the biggest story of all: none of this would matter if drug companies hadn't worked hard to make sure the old, cheap inhalers were banned. How's your blood doing now, Dr. Saunders?

No one has more disdain than I for companies that attempt to use the coercive power of the government as a competitive weapon in their favor.  Heck, I have barely gone 2 hours since the last time I bashed an industry for doing so.

But the implication that this is all the fault of corporations is just wrong, as is the the inevitable Progressive conclusion that somehow more government regulation and powers are necessary to combat this.

The Left has been the prime cheerleader over the past decades in creating the Federal behemoth that not only allows this to happen, but actively facilitates it.   We have created a government whose primary purpose is to redistribute spoils from one group to another.

Just look at the example he uses.  These drug manufacturers could have protected their markets and products the free market way, by investing tens of millions in more research, manufacturing cost reduction, and customer marketing.   But instead, we have a system where - entirely legally - a company can spend a fraction of this (the chump change amount of half a million dollars) to market to a few dozen people in DC and get the same benefits as investing tens of millions in satisfying customers.    The wonder is not that losers like these drug companies go this route, but that anybody at all still has enough sense of honor to actually invest in the customer rather than in DC bureaucrats.

I put it this way - "invest in customers rather than DC bureaucrats" - because every new regulation, every new government power over commerce is essentially a dis-empowerment of consumers in the marketplace.  Nowhere is this more true than in pharmaceuticals, where the government tells consumers what they can and cannot buy.

In a free market, accountability is enforced by consumers defending their own best interests and new competitors seeking fortunes by striving to serve consumers better than market incumbents.  Every government intervention is essentially saying to consumers that the government is going to make yet another decision for them.  So, having taken over so many decisions of consumers in those huge office buildings in DC, is it any wonder that companies go to DC to market to bureaucrats rather than bother marketing to consumers?

The problem, then, is not that some corporations avail themselves of legal shortcuts to profits.  The problem is that these legal shortcuts exist at all.  The problem is the coercive power of government to intervene in markets, chill competition through incensing, subsidize one competitor over another, etc.  These kinds of stories are going to proliferate endlessly until  that power is scaled back.

The Progressives I argue with come back with one of two answers.

This is a crock, and is the worst bit of enablement for a bad system ever invented.   The folks in government are not bad people -- they are normal people with bad information and bad incentives, and that is never going to change.  After all, something that Drum glosses over here, the agency in hid example went along and did the industry's bidding.  I know why the industry was doing what it did, but why did the agency roll over?  The whole theory is that these are public spirited people without commercial incentives.  Yet they rolled over none-the-less.  And it's not like these government employees are Rothbardian libertarians.  I work with the government all the time.  Their employees are there because they believe in public solutions over private ones.  In outlook and biases and beliefs they look a lot more like Kevin Drum than myself.  So why do they get a pass?  Of the two people here -- the drug company guy and the regulator guy -- which one is not doing his job right for his constituents?  So why does the drug company get the blame?

Response 2:  We just need to ban lobbying and contact with the regulated industry.  The whole theory of regulation is that the regulators are totally knowledgeable about the industry, but they have different incentives so they can work in the public interest.  But how are they going to be totally knowledgeable about the industry without frequent contact?  Or even experience in the industry?  And as to lobbying, lobbying is just speech.  It would be Constitutionally impossible to ban lobbying, and wrong anyway.  Think of it this way-- let's say you ran a restaurant but had to get a government agency's permission for each change in your menu (just as drug companies have to get permission for each change in their product offering).  Would you be happy with a situation in which the government made decisions on your menu without consulting you?  You would want to explain your desired changes and the logic behind them, right?   That's called lobbying, and you would not be happy to see it banned.