Archive for the ‘The Corporate State’ Category.

Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

Progressivism is Not Caring. It is Authoritarianism

The city of Seatac (a small area of land around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) gained national attention a while back for passing a $15 minimum wage.  Many other groups, including the city of Seattle itself, as well as this year's Democratic platform committee, cited the Seatac example as an impetus for higher minimum wages everywhere.

In today's politics, there is no better way for a Leftish politician to virtue-signal than to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  It is a classic case of a government law that helps a few easy to identify people and hurts a whole bunch of people in ways that are hard to attribute to the law, such as reduced employment for low-skill workers and higher prices for consumers.

So the City of Seatac has been taking a victory lap over the last year, patting itself on its back for how caring it is of its citizens.  Oh, and it has also been doing this:

A three-month-long civil trial revealed the shadowy subterfuge behind a secret land grab that was orchestrated by the city of SeaTac, replete with backroom deals, baldfaced deceptions, and a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood.

The aim of it all: to wrestle 4.23 acres of prime real estate from entrepreneurs Gerry and Kathy Kingen, according to the judge and jury who heard the case.

The West Seattle couple sued the city and won, proving in court that SeaTac officials intentionally sabotaged their development plans, strong-armed them into giving up their property and then violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding city emails and documents proving the deception.

The trial judge also concluded the former SeaTac mayor wanted condos built on the site, believing they would price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”...

In March 2004, K&S Developments [the Kingen's investment vehicle] began working with SeaTac’s planning department to get approval for [a] park-and-fly, and city officials “voiced support and encouragement” for the proposal. The judge noted there “was never any public opposition” to the plan.

But unbeknown to the Kingens, SeaTac’s planning director, city manager and other staff decided in late 2005 they didn’t want K&S to build the park-and-fly because it would create competition for a park-and-fly the city wanted to build about a mile south at South 176th Street.

So in February 2006, city staff “devised a secret plan” to get the City Council to pass a moratorium designed to kill the Kingens’ park-and-fly project, the judge wrote. After learning of the permanent ban, Gerry Kingen met with members of the City Council and then-Mayor Gene Fisher, who “promised to make things right.”

 

The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.

W160518_BESSEN_WHATSDRIVING-1200x805

This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system

My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California

Last week I went on a wine-tasting tour in the Napa Valley with a bunch of friends who are passionate about wine.  It was an odd experience, because I am not passionate about wine and do not have the tasting ability to discern many differences between the wine.  I could tell it was a red wine, and maybe if it was dry or fruity, but hints of tobacco and blackcurrent?  Not so much.  It was also weird to be in a place where I really was not very passionate (wine is behind both beer and cocktails in my drinking hierarchy) but I was surrounded by people with a an excess of passion -- by people who seem to build their whole life around wine.  There was a lot of competitive one-upsmanship and virtue signalling going on around wine that I only barely understood.  I would equate the whole experience with my wife's experience at Comicon, standing in line behind two guys passionately arguing about comic book hero backstories.  I tried my hardest to be tolerant of those who had really different interests than I have, though I will say that this tolerance was NOT shared by most wine enthusiasts who treated me as demonstrably defective when I admitted that wine did not do that much for me.

Anyway, at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business.  And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa.   I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county.  There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them.  There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing.   Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good.  I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure.  You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? -- forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together.  Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it.  I couldn't figure out why the hell this was a criteria -- if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house?   But it turned out that they couldn't build a house.  We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered.  Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people.  It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people.   It is spectacularly beautiful to visit -- seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital  invested in their vineyards.  The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don't fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days.  But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence.  It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas.  I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Postscript:  The winner of the cost-no-object winery award had to be Palmaz.  Created by one of the folks who invented the heart stent, it was a wonderfully eccentric place.   The owner theorized years ago that pumping wine (something that is done at many steps to transfer it between process steps) hurts the wine by breaking up longer chain tannin molecules (search me if this is true).  Anyway, he wanted everything gravity fed, but that meant you needed grapes to come in at the top, with fermenters below that, and filters below that, and wine barrels for aging below that.  Well, if you have been reading this post, you can guess that a building tall enough for this certainly can't be built in Napa.  So he carved it out of a mountain.  Seriously, this place is like NORAD, with probably a mile of underground passages stacked 18 stories deep from top to bottom.  In the center of the mountain is this room:

click to enlarge

In a circle behind the railing are fermenters on a train track that can rotate as a group all around like a giant carousel to position them under the grape chute or over the filters.  The room is carved out with a giant dome, and on the dome are projected process control data about each grape or wine batch.  It was truly incredible.  (More about it online here)

Don't get me wrong, I love this.  It is a pleasant eccentricity, from which others can benefit.  And the wine was good, at least to my admittedly weak evaluation skills.  I just hate it that the arbiters of the Napa Valley feel the need to exclude others who want to use their own land in different ways.

Update:  A Coyote Blog reader writes that they ARE doing things differently making wine in Paso Robles.  Here is his web site and story.

Contact Lenses and Cronyism

Hooray for Veronica de Rugy, who is criticizing prescription requirements for contact lenses.

What makes the contact lens market unique — and also leaves it extra vulnerable to crony intervention — is the fact that customers are required by federal law to obtain a prescription from a licensed optometrist in order to purchase lenses.

It is a rare instance where prescribers are also sellers, which leads to a cozy relationship between manufacturers and the doctors who can steer patients toward their brand.

Prescriptions are brand-specific, which makes it difficult for consumers to shop around. Choosing a different brand would require paying for another exam in order to obtain a new prescription.

The simplest solution would be to do away with the gatekeepers altogether and allow the purchase of contact lenses without a prescription.

It works just fine that way in Europe and Japan

I feel like I have been the lone voice in the wilderness on this one, writing about my frustration with contact lens prescription requirements way back in 2007:

I drive into my local Shell station to fill up, and stick my card in the pump, but the pump refuses to dispense.  I walk into the office and ask the store manager why I can't get gasoline.  She checks my account, and says "Mr. Meyer, your Volvo fuel prescription has expired."  I say, "Oh, well its OK, I am sure I am using the right gas."  She replies, "I'm sorry, but the law requires that you have to have a valid prescription from your dealership to refill your gas.  You can't make that determination yourself, and most car dealerships have their prescriptions expire each year to make sure you bring the car in for a checkup.  Regular checkups are important to the health of your car.  You will need to pay for a service visit to your dealership before we can sell you gas."  I reply, "RRRRRRR."

OK, so if this really happened we would all scream SCAM!  While we all recognize that it may be important to get our car checked out every once in a while, most of us would see this for what it was:  A government regulation intended mainly to increase the business of my Volvo dealership's service department by forcing me to pay for regular visits.

So why don't we cry foul when the exact same situation occurs every day with glasses and contact lenses?

Net Neutrality: I Told Your So

From the WSJ (emphasis added):

Netflix now admits that for the past five years, all through the debate on net neutrality, it was deliberately slowing its videos watched by users on AT&T and Verizon’s wireless networks. The company did so for good reason—to protect users from overage penalties. But it never told users at a time when Netflix was claiming carriers generally were deliberately slowing its service to protect their own TV businesses—a big lie, it turned out.

All this has brought considerable and well-deserved obloquy on the head of Netflix CEOReed Hastings for his role in inviting extreme Obama utility regulation of the Internet. Others deserve blame too. Google lobbied the administration privately but was too chicken to speak up publicly against utility regulation.

But Netfix appears to have acted out of especially puerile and venal motives. Netflix at the time was trying to use political pressure to cut favorable deals to connect directly to last-mile operators like Comcast and Verizon—a penny-ante consideration worth a few million dollars at best, for which Netflix helped create a major public policy wrong-turn.

This is what I wrote about net neutrality a couple of years ago:

Net Neutrality is one of those Orwellian words that mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like.  There is a battle that goes on in the marketplace in virtually every communication medium between content creators and content deliverers.  We can certainly see this in cable TV, as media companies and the cable companies that deliver their product occasionally have battles that break out in public.   But one could argue similar things go on even in, say, shipping, where magazine publishers push for special postal rates and Amazon negotiates special bulk UPS rates.

In fact, this fight for rents across a vertical supply chain exists in virtually every industry.  Consumers will pay so much for a finished product.  Any vertical supply chain is constantly battling over how much each step in the chain gets of the final consumer price.

What "net neutrality" actually means is that certain people, including apparently the President, want to tip the balance in this negotiation towards the content creators (no surprise given Hollywood's support for Democrats).  Netflix, for example, takes a huge amount of bandwidth that costs ISP's a lot of money to provide.  But Netflix doesn't want the ISP's to be be able to charge for this extra bandwidth Netflix uses - Netflix wants to get all the benefit of taking up the lion's share of ISP bandwidth investments without having to pay for it.  Net Neutrality is corporate welfare for content creators....

I am still pretty sure the net effect of these regulations, whether they really affect net neutrality or not, will be to disarm ISP's in favor of content providers in the typical supply chain vertical wars that occur in a free market.  At the end of the day, an ISP's last resort in negotiating with a content provider is to shut them out for a time, just as the content provider can do the same in reverse to the ISP's customers.  Banning an ISP from doing so is like banning a union from striking.

 

When You Give Up On Allocating Resources via Markets and Prices, All That is Left is Interest Group Politics

One of the ugly facts about how we manage water is that by eschewing markets and prices to allocate scarce water, all that is left is command and control allocation to match supply and demand.  The uglier fact is that politicians like it that way.  A golf course that pays a higher market rate for water doesn't help a politician one bit.  A golf course that has to beg for water through a political process is a source of campaign donations for life.

In a free society without an intrusive government, it would not matter whether California almond growers were loved or hated.  If people did not like them, then they just wouldn't buy their product.  But in California, the government holds the power of life or death over businesses through a number of levers, not least of which is water.

Almonds have become the Left's] new bête noir. The nut is blamed for exacerbating the California drought, overtaxing honeybee colonies, starving salmon of river water, and price-gauging global consumers. Almonds may be loved by consumers, but almond growers, it seems, are increasingly despised in the media. In 2014, The Atlantic published a melodramatic essay, “The Dark Side of Almond Use”—with the ominous subtitle, “People are eating almonds in unprecedented amounts. Is that okay?” If no one much cared that California agriculture was in near depression for much of the latter twentieth century—and that almonds were hardly worth growing in the 1970s—they now worry that someone is netting $5,000 to $10,000 per acre on the nut.

It is almost too much to bear for a social or environmental activist that a corporate farm of 5,000 acres could in theory clear $30 million a year—without either exploiting poor workers or poisoning the environment, but in providing cool people with a healthy, hip, natural product. The kind of people who eat almond butter and drink almond milk, after all, are the kind of people who tend to endorse liberal causes.

As for almonds worsening the drought: The truth is that the nut uses about the same amount of water per acre as other irrigated California crops such as pasture, alfalfa, tree fruit, pistachios, cotton, or rice. In fact, almonds require a smaller percentage of yearly irrigation use than their percentage of California farmland calls for. Nonetheless, the growth of almond farming represents to many a greedy use of scarce collective resource.

Love This Chart

Local Media Still Trying to Save the Phoenix NHL Team

No one loves local sports teams more than the local media.  I think they know, but probably won't admit, that they would lose a huge chunk of their remaining readership / viewership for their news products if they did not have local sports to report on.  So you will almost never, ever, ever see local media reporting reporting on the true cost (in terms of handouts of taxpayer money) to retaining pro teams.

My coverage of the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes hockey team goes way back, including even to a mention in a George Will column.  I won't repeat all of that.  I just want to point to this article entitled "Glendale selects AEG to manage Gila River Arena; Arizona Coyotes' future unclear."

Glendale selected facilities-management company AEG Facilities to operate Gila River Arena, likely hastening the city's split with the Arizona Coyotes hockey team.

The telling thing about the article is that it never once explains to readers why this bid award might hasten the split with the Coyotes.  They mention that the Coyotes chose not to bid on the contract.   So why is this award a problem for them?  Do they hate AEG for some reason?  If you really were new to the issues here, you would have to scratch your head and wonder why the two issues were connected.

Oddly enough, everyone knows the reason, but the local media really wants to avoid mentioning this reason.  Here is the elephant in the room no one will recognize:  The Coyotes struggle to make money in this market, a fact made worse by the terrible location of the stadium at the far end of town from most of the potential corporate ticket buyers and wealthy people.   As a result, the team languished in bankruptcy for years, in part because the NHL (who took over the team) refused to sell it at a reasonable market price.

They finally found a buyer who agreed to buy it for an above-market price, but did so only because there was an implicit promise by the town of Glendale to subsidize them the $100 million difference between the actual and market price of the team..  The Goldwater Institute called foul on this subsidy and got it stopped.  So the town found a way around it, promising to award the team the stadium management contract for a price  $8-$10 million a year above market rates for the service.   The present value of this above-market pricing over the life of the proposed contract nearly exactly matched the earlier subsidy proposal Goldwater killed.  Various folks cried foul again, seeing through this sham, and got that stopped.

So the reason this award of the stadium management contract to AEG is so devastating to the Coyotes is that this contract represented the last hope of exacting a hidden subsidy from the city.  With this contract awarded to an arms-length third party at market rates, the last chance of making the Coyote's business viable on the taxpayer's backs seems to have escaped.

Update:  I am hearing now that another reason the Coyotes are done in Glendale is that they think the city of Phoenix or Scottsdale will build them a new stadium.  ugh.  Will it never end.

Why Did GE Leave For Another High-Tax State? Do Corporate Giveaways Trump Tax Rates in a HQ Move?

General Electric (GE) has complained for years about Connecticut's (its current corporate home) taxation and regulatory policies.  Recently, it said it was moving for greener pastures, and was leaving for... Massachusetts?

Seriously?  This is like moving from North Korea to China to get more freedom of speech.  Boston's top state income tax bracket is perhaps a point lower than CT's but Florida or Texas have rates of zero, and a much lower cost of living and real estate.

Granted that Boston has its attractions for a company trying to change its public perception to being a technology company.  But I can't shake the suspicion this has something to do with a relocation giveaway to GE from the city and state.  GE has become one of the biggest supporters and beneficiaries of crony capitalism in the country.   I have to believe they cut some sweetheart deal that will eventually funnel a bunch of Massachusetts taxpayer money into GE coffers.  After all, if cities will throw away a half billion dollars in taxpayer money to attract an NFL team that does business for just 24 hours a year in the city (8 games x 3 hours per game), how much will politicians pay of their citizens' money to be able to list "attracting GE" as a lead bullet in their re-election talking points?

Buggy Whip Manufacturers Sue Ford Over Lost Revenues

Via Reason and the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Four taxi drivers are suing Uber and seeking class-action status, alleging they’ve seen up to a 40 percent dip in business since the ride-hailing service began operating in violation of local regulations.

My Wish for the Republican Debates: Less Talk on Taxes, More Talk on Regulation

I would be all for reductions in tax levels, but I don't think that current Federal tax rates are particularly a barrier to growth and prosperity.  A much bigger, and ever-growing barrier to growth is regulation.

5-10 years ago, in my small business, I spent my free time, and most of our organization's training time, on new business initiatives (e.g. growth into new businesses, new out-warding-facing technologies for customers, etc).  Over the last five years, all of my time and the organization's free bandwidth has been spent on regulatory compliance.  Obamacare alone has sucked up endless hours and hassles -- and continues to do so as we work through arcane reporting requirements.  But changing Federal and state OSHA requirements, changing minimum wage and other labor regulations, and numerous changes to state and local legislation have also consumed an inordinate amount of our time.  We spent over a year in trial and error just trying to work out how to comply with California meal break law, with each successive approach we took challenged in some court case, forcing us to start over.  For next year, we are working to figure out how to comply with the 2015 Obama mandate that all of our salaried managers now have to punch a time clock and get paid hourly.

Greg Mankiw points to a nice talk on this topic by Steven Davis.  For years I have been saying that one effect of all this regulation is to essentially increase the minimum viable size of any business, because of the fixed compliance costs.   A corollary to this rising minimum size hypothesis is that the rate of new business formation is likely dropping, since more and more capital is needed just to overcome the compliance costs before one reaches this rising minimum viable size.  The author has a nice chart on this point, which is actually pretty scary.  This is probably the best single chart I have seen to illustrate the rise of the corporate state:

decline of new business employment

 

Postscript:  I had thought that all the difficult years converting all of our employees from full to part time to avoid Obamacare sanctions would be the end of our compliance hassles (no company will write health insurance for us, so our only defense against the mandates and penalties is to make everyone part-time).  But the hassles have not ended.  For every employee, next year we must provide a statement that has a series of codes, by month, for that employee's health care status.  It is so complicated that knowledgeable people are still arguing about what codes we should be using.  Here is a mere taste of the rules:

  A code must be entered for each calendar month January through December, even if the employee was not a full-time employee for one or more of the calendar months. Enter the code identifying the type of health coverage actually offered by the employer (or on behalf of the employer) to the employee, if any. Do not enter a code for any other type of health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but the employee was not actually offered coverage). For example, do not enter a code for health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but did not actually offer) under the dependent coverage transition relief, or non-calendar year transition relief, even if the employee is included in the count of full-time employees offered minimum essential coverage for purposes of Form 1094-C, Part III, column (a). If the employee was not actually offered coverage, enter Code 1H (no offer of coverage) on line 14.  For reporting offers of coverage for 2015, an employer relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance should enter code 1H on line 14 for any month for which the employer enters code 2E on line 16 (indicating that the employer was required to contribute to a multiemployer plan on behalf of the employee for that month and therefore is eligible for multiemployer interim rule relief). For a description of the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance, see Offer of health coverage in the Definitions section. For reporting for 2015, Code 1H may be entered without regard to whether the employee was eligible to enroll or enrolled in coverage under the multiemployer plan. For reporting for 2016 and future years, ALE Members relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance may be required to report offers of coverage made through a multiemployer plan in a different manner.

Here are some of the codes:

  • 1A. Qualifying Offer: Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to full-time employee with employee contribution for self-only coverage equal to or less than 9.5% mainland single federal poverty line and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse and dependent(s).

    This code may be used to report for specific months for which a Qualifying Offer was made, even if the employee did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 months of the calendar year. However, an employer may not use the Alternative Furnishing Method for an employee who did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 calendar months (except in cases in which the employer is eligible for and reports using the Alternative Furnishing Method for 2015 Qualifying Offer Method Transition Relief as described in these instructions).

  • 1B. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee only.
  • 1C. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) (not spouse).
  • 1D. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse (not dependent(s)).
  • 1E. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) and spouse.
  • 1F. Minimum essential coverage NOT providing minimum value offered to employee; employee and spouse or dependent(s); or employee, spouse and dependents.
  • 1G. Offer of coverage to employee who was not a full-time employee for any month of the calendar year (which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee) and who enrolled in self-insured coverage for one or more months of the calendar year.
  • 1H. No offer of coverage (employee not offered any health coverage or employee offered coverage that is not minimum essential coverage, which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee).
  • 1I. Qualifying Offer Transition Relief 2015: Employee (and spouse or dependents) received no offer of coverage; received an offer that is not a qualifying offer; or received a qualifying offer for less than 12 months.

Koch on Cronyism

Robert Bradley at Master Resource has a great pair of posts with some of the writings, past and present, of Charles Koch on cronyism.  Part 1 has past writing, part 2 has quotes from Koch's new book.

I find it telling the progressives have chosen the most vocal and one of the most eloquent opponents of cronyism and corporate welfare as their particular bogeyman.

How Deeply Rooted is Cronyism in American Government? 2nd Circuit Calls it The Essence of Politics

A teeth whitening service in Connecticut sued the state, arguing that the state regulatory rule banning anyone but dentists from performing the simple whitening procedure should be overturned because its only purpose was to shield one favored group from competition.

The Court sided with Cronyism, ruling in part:

"Even if the only conceivable reason for the LED restriction was to shield licensed dentists from competition," the 2nd Circuit declared, "economic favoritism" is a sufficient justification all by itself. "Much of what states do is to favor certain groups over others on economic grounds," the court said. "We call this politics."

When I went to school, our system was described to me as "majority rule with minority protections".  The American system was never supposed to allow for the arbitrary sacrifice of one group to another just because the first group can manufacture more votes.

The Problem with Elon Musk

When first presented with the idea of the Hyperloop (a train running in vaccuum in an underground tube), I was extremely skeptical it made any sense.   Sure it might work (after all the London tube started out as a pneumatic system much like those that older ones of us remember sending receipts around department stores).   But did it make any economic sense.  Was it really likely that, if we can't afford rail lines above ground easily, we could afford to build thousands of miles of air-tight large-diameter tubes?  Honestly, it looked to me like any other silly idea on the cover of Popular Mechanics, right next to the titanium zeppelin the size of Connecticut that would someday be doing construction work.

So enter Elon Musk, who is very passionate about the idea, claims to be convinced it will work, and appears to be putting some money behind it.   With his support, the idea must immediately be treated as more credible, and it does indeed get a lot of press.  But here is the problem for me with Musk:  With him, the idea must also be treated as very probably another attempt by him to drain money out of the taxpayers' pockets into his.  Because that is what he does in so many of his enterprises.

Dispatches from the Crony State

From the Daily Beast

For some wealthy donors, it doesn’t matter who takes the White House in 2016—as long as the president’s name is Clinton or Bush.

More than 60 ultra-rich Americans have contributed to both Jeb Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s federal campaigns, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by Vocativ and The Daily Beast. Seventeen of those contributors have gone one step further and opened their wallets to fund both Bush’s and Clinton’s 2016 ambitions.

After all, why support just Hillary Clinton or just Jeb Bush when you can hedge your bets and donate to both? This seems to be the thinking of a group of powerful men and women—racetrack owners, bankers, media barons, chicken magnates, hedge funders (and their spouses). Some of them have net worths that can eclipse the GDPs of small countries.

Ideology, policy prescriptions, legislative plans -- nothing matters except influence.  This will always happen as long as we give politicians so much power.  Its why the Coke and Pepsi party look so similar today.   At least a few people are noticing:

Is there a single person alive who believes that corporations, trade associations, NGOs, unions, and the like pay the Clintons enormous sums for speeches because they believe their members actually want to hear the Clintons say the same tedious talking points they have been spewing for years? If that were the only value received no profit-minded enterprise would pay the Clintons these vast fees because they would earn, well, a shitty rate of return.

No, the Clintons are not paid to speak. Businesses and other interest groups pay them for the favor of access at a crucial moment or a thumb on the scale in the future, perhaps when it is time to renew the Ex-Im Bank or at a thousand other occasions when a nod might divert millions of dollars from average people in to the pockets of the crony capitalists. The speaking is just a ragged fig leaf, mostly to allow their allies in the media to say they “earned” the money for “speaking,” which is, after all, hard work.

We have such people as the Clintons (and the tens of thousands of smaller bore looters who have turned the counties around Washington, D.C. in to the richest in the country) because they and their ilk in both parties have transformed the federal government of the United States in to a vast favors factory, an invidious place that not only picks winners and losers and decides the economic fates of millions of people, but which has persuaded itself that this is all quite noble. Instead, the opposite is true: This entire class of people, of which the Clintons are a most ugly apotheosis, are destroying the country while claiming it is all in the “public service.” It is disgusting. We need to say that, at least, out loud. . . .

Tear down the aristocracy of pull. This may be our last chance.

Thanks Vancouver For Banning Uber So I Could Wait In 30-Minute Taxi Lines

no-uber-in-vancouver

This picture was taken at my hotel in Vancouver, BC on Saturday.  This is only about a third of the mob trying to get a taxi, a process that took me over 30 minutes.  The whole thing was made doubly frustrating by another bit of government interference -- about half the taxis that showed up dropping folks off left the hotel empty despite the huge mass of people waiting.  Why?  Apparently certain airport taxis are not allowed to pick up people in certain areas.  So the taxis had to go all the way back to the airport empty, despite the fact that people there were waiting to go to the airport.  Absolute madness of crony government intervention.

Yes, I understand that Saturday is "cruise day" and there is a huge spike in demand as these boats load and unload.  But this is exactly why Uber would make so much sense.  Think about all the folks that have weekday jobs that would love to earn some extra money driving on a Saturday.  Uber allows for just this sort of flexibility.

Ultimate Proof Green Energy is About Cronyism, Not the Environment

Government green energy programs are supposedly about subsidizing new energy technologies to reduce their cost and increase their adoption rate.  But it appears to me that they are in fact merely about subsidizing favored companies.

Why?  Well consider this:

Over the last couple of years, trade remedy actions on clean energy products have intensified. In the wind industry, the Wind Tower Trade Coalition, an association of U.S. producers of wind towers, brought an AD/CVD complaint against imported wind towers in 2011. The U.S. Commerce Department started an investigation, and announced a preliminary decision in December 2012.

This decision found both subsidization and dumping in relation to Chinese imports and imposed an antidumping tariff of between 44.99% and 70.63%, as well as countervailing duties of 21.86%–34.81%. The Commerce Department also established a separate antidumping duty of 51.40%–58.49% on Vietnamese wind tower manufacturers.

In the solar industry, in October 2011, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, a group of seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers led by Solar World Industries America, accused Chinese solar panel companies of dumping products in the United States. The Commerce Department opened an investigation in 2011 and announced the final ruling in 2012. The decision was to impose antidumping tariffs ranging from 24% to 36% on Chinese producers.

All of those actions are not only not consistent with reducing the cost of new energy technologies, they actually raise the cost of wind and solar.  The only benefit of these actions is to improve the bottom line of crony-connected green energy companies.  There is no reason to believe that this cronyism is not the real rational behind the whole program.   If government subsidizes consumer solar purchases 30% and then raises solar panel costs by 30%, they are not making the technology cheaper for consumers, but just finding an excuse to pour tax money into the pockets of a few folks like Elon Musk.

Great Example of Concentrated Benefits / Dispersed Costs Cronyism: New Phoenix Rail Tax

The hefty sales tax that funds Phoenix light rail deficits is about to expire, and as is usual, politicians not only don't want it to expire but they want to double it so they can build more over-priced rail lines.

One of the reasons that stuff like this is so hard to fight is a phenomenon called "concentrated benefits but dispersed costs."  This means that, particularly for certain crony handouts, the benefits accrue to just a few actors who, due to the size of these giveaways, have a lot of financial incentive to promote and defend them.  The costs, on the other hand, are dispersed such that the final bill might only be a few dollars per taxpayer, such that no individual has much incentive to really pay up to support the fight.

A great example of this is sugar tariffs.  These raise the price of sugar (as well as reducing our choices and effectively promoting imperfect substitutes like HFCS) so we as consumers should all fight them.  But the higher cost of sugar might only cost us, say, $20 each a year individually.   Are you really going to donate $100 in a political cause to save $20?  On the other side, these tariffs create millions and millions of dollars in profit for a few sugar producers, such that they have a lot of money and incentive to spend big on lobbying to keep the tariffs in place.

The new Phoenix light rail tax increase gives us a yet another sad example of the phenomenon:

Construction companies, engineering firms and transit service providers are the biggest early supporters of the Proposition 104 campaign to expand Phoenix transportation, while the group fighting the proposed tax increase still seeks major funding.

The MovePHX campaign, supporting the bus, light rail and street improvement plan going before city voters in August, raised $382,900 from March through the end of May, according to finance reports filed Monday.

Opposition group Taken for A Ride — No on Prop 104 received just under $417 from individuals over the same period. A second campaign committee opposed to the proposition formed after the contribution reporting period ended....

More than half of the contributions to the MovePHX campaign during the reporting period came from engineering, design and construction firms, including many that were hired for design and consultation on the Valley's first stretch of light rail.

The largest single donation came from We Build Arizona, a group of engineering, contracting and transit organizations that donated $125,000 to the campaign. TransDev and Alternate Concepts, Inc., which hold bus and light rail service contracts, contributed more than $35,000 combined.

A combined $30,000 came from police, firefighter and food and commercial worker union political action committees.

$382,900 to $417.  That is why cronyism is so prevalent.

France Arrests Entrepreneurs for Crime of Innovation. Is it Any Wonder the Economy Sucks?

CEO of Uber France has been arrested because, uh, his competitors have resorted to violence to defend their inferior product.  The fact that the victim rather than the perpetrators of violence is getting arrested speaks volumes to how far governments will go to block innovation that hurts politically-connected incumbents.

After days of violent protests and defiance on the part of Uber's French management, two of the company's employees were taken into custody for "illicit activity" today. Uber France CEO Thibaut Simphal and Uber European GM Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty were arrested for running the company's ride-sharing service illegally. TechCrunch reports the pair is also being held under suspicion of "concealing digital documents." Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve took legal action to shut down UberPOP, the service that employs non-professional drivers to provide rides, in response to protests that blocked key transportation hubs.

... While UberPOP was banned in France earlier this year, an appeals court said it could continue to operate until the final decision was handed down in September.

French Punish Uber For Taxi Driver Violence Against Uber

This seems to be perfectly in the spirit of the times:

The French government has ordered police to crack down on Uber in Paris after violence erupted at demonstrations by taxi drivers against the online ride service.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Thursday that he asked the Paris police authority to issue a decree forbidding activity by UberPOP drivers. Similar decrees have already been issued in other major French cities.

Cazeneuve said vehicles using UberPOP will now "be systematically seized" by police when caught operating.

The UberPOP app was ruled illegal by the French government last year, but the U.S. company hasn't yet exhausted all legal recourse and has told its drivers to keep operating.

Responding to Cazeneuve's comments Thursday, Uber said it was "still assessing on which legal ground such measures could be implemented."

Uber said that it is up to the courts to decide what is legal and that no court has so far told it to stop operating.

Angry over Uber's incursion into their industry, taxi drivers held protests around Paris on Thursday that disrupted traffic near airports, major rail stations and key intersections, ensnaring American rock singer Courtney Love in the chaos.

This is the corporate state at work -- any business not explicitly approved by politicians will be suppressed.

Glendale AZ City Management is Just Awful

For years I have excoriated the City of Glendale, AZ (a western suburb of Phoenix) for its myriad subsidies of the Coyotes NHL hockey team.  When Glendale finally had the chance to walk away several years ago, I (and many others) begged the town not to throw good taxpayer money after bad and re-sign some sort of subsidy agreement with the team.   For you see, even after getting a stadium at taxpayer expense, the team still demands millions of dollars a year in operating subsidies to stay in town.

But the town insisted on throwing more taxpayer money at the group buying the Coyotes from the NHL out of bankruptcy.  The problem was that there was a gap between the NHL's asking price ($200 million) and the team's value in AZ ($100 million).  First, they tried to give them a direct subsidy, but the Goldwater Institute sued to stop that and won.  So instead, the city buried the subsidy in a stadium management contract.  Here is how I described this contract at the time it was signed:

The NHL came down to a price of $175 million, still $75 million or so above what the team is worth.   The City had already sought arms-length bids for the stadium management contract, and knew that a fair market price for that contract would be $6 million per year.  It ended up paying the buying group $15 million per year for the 15-year contract, representing a subsidy of $9 million a year for 15 years.  By the way, the present value of $9 million over 15 years at 8% is... $75 million, exactly what was needed to make up the bid-ask gap.  Again, I think the city almost had to do it, because the revenue stream it was protecting is likely higher than $9 million.  But this is the kind of bad choices they saddled themselves with by building the stadium in the first place.

So only now that they have signed the contract and a private party has taken over the Coyotes based on the city's contract, Glendale is trying to unilaterally tear up the contract.  They have some thin reed of a "conflict of interest" claim that is based on the overlap of payrolls for one guy between the City and the Coyotes by a couple of days.  This seems like an absurd claim gen'd up just to try to solve Glendale's buyer's remorse.   My gut feel is that it is never going to fly in court.

What a bunch of losers.  You should never have signed the contract, but now that it is signed, you actually have an obligation to live by it, particularly since a private party paid $100 million extra for the team mainly on the strength of this contract.c  If you want out, declare bankruptcy (which actually might not be too far away for the city).

All my coverage of this Coyotes and Glendale mess is here.

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"?