Posts tagged ‘accounting’

It's Not A Market Failure When People Avoid a Crappy Investment

Environmentalists often claim that people systematically under-invest in energy conservation, something they call a market failure.   This is why Obama and the Left put in a much heralded provision in the stimulus package that used Federal money to subsidize home energy conservation (new windows and insulation and such).

A new study in the NBER looks at the results.  This is the abstract:

Conventional wisdom suggests that energy efficiency (EE) policies are beneficial because they induce investments that pay for themselves and lead to emissions reductions. However, this belief is primarily based on projections from engineering models. This paper reports on the results of an experimental evaluation of the nation’s largest residential EE program conducted on a sample of more than 30,000 households. The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings. Further, the model-projected savings are roughly 2.5 times the actual savings. While this might be attributed to the “rebound” effect – when demand for energy end uses increases as a result of greater efficiency – the paper fails to find evidence of significantly higher indoor temperatures at weatherized homes. Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.

The only failure here is the government diverting capital from productive uses into money-losing ventures like this one.

Question: Name An Activity The Government is Better At Than the Private Actors It Purports to Regulate

I am serious about this.  We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke.  In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail.  It almost never fully funds its pensions.  Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately.  Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes.   Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants.  The government's Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.

By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?

Update:  On the topic of cyber security competence or lack thereof, there is this:

In mid-May, the Federal Bureau of Investigations lost control over seized domains, including Megaupload.com, when the agency failed to renew a key domain name of its own. That domain, which hosted the name servers that redirected requests for seized sites to an FBI Web page, was purchased at auction—and then used to redirect traffic from Megaupload.com and other sites to a malicious site serving porn ads and malware. Weeks later, those sites are still in limbo because somehow, despite a law enforcement freeze on the domain name, the name servers associated with Megaupload.com and those other seized sites were changed to point at hosts associated with a domain registered in China.

Yep, that is the lead government agency tasked with investigating hacking and cyber security breaches.

Trade and The World's Most Misunderstood Accounting Identity: Y=C+I+G+X-M

Repeat after me:  Y=C+I+G+X-M is an accounting rule.  It does not explain anything about the economy.  It is as useful to telling us anything interesting about the economy as the equation biomass=plants+animals+bacteria tells us anything about the ecosystem.

Which is why this kind of article in the press makes me crazy (emphasis added)

The U.S. trade gap narrowed in April as the effects of a West Coast port slowdown faded, easing one of the biggest drags on economic growth during the opening months of the year....

This year’s volatile import and export figures worked out to an overall drag on the economy in the opening months of 2015....

A surge in imports and falling exports subtracted 1.9 percentage points from the headline figure. As measured by GDP, exports are a positive for economic growth, while imports are a negative...

“The huge drag on GDP from trade in Q1 will almost certainly not be repeated in Q2,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Here is the logic.  The GDP is calculated by adding Consumer spending + Industrial spending + Government spending + eXports and then subtracting iMports.  Because imports are subtracted in the GDP equation, they look to the layman like they shrink the economy.  How do we grow the economy?  Why, let's reduce that number that is subtracted!  But this is wrong.  Totally wrong.   I have tried many times to explain this, but let me see if I can work by analogy.

Let's say we wanted an equation to count the amount of clothing we owned.  To make things simple, let's say we are only concerned with the total of Shirts, Pants, and Underwear.   Most of our clothes are in the closet, so we say our clothes are equal to the S+P+U we count in our closet.  But wait, we may have Loaned clothes to other people.  Those are not in our closet but should count.  So now clothes = S+P+U+L.  But we may also have borrowed clothes.  Some of those clothes we counted in the closet may be Borrowed and thus not actually ours, so we need to back these out.  Our final equation is clothes = S+P+U+L-B.  Look familiar?

Let's go further.  Let's say that we want to increase our number of clothes.  We want wardrobe growth!  Well, it looks like those borrowed clothes are a "drag" on our wardrobe size.  If we get rid of the borrowed clothes, that negative B term will get smaller and our wardrobe has to get larger, right?

Wrong.  Remember, like the GDP equation, our wardrobe size equation is just an accounting identity.  The negative B term was put in to account for the fact that some of the clothes we counted in S+P+U in the closet were not actually ours.  But if we decrease B, say by returning our friend's shirt, the S term will go down by the exact same amount.  Sure, B goes down, but so do the number of shirts we count in the closet.  So focusing on the B term gets us nowhere.

But it is actually worse than that, because focusing on reducing B makes us worse off.  If B rises, our wardrobe is no larger, but we get the use of all of those other pieces of clothing.  Our owned wardrobe may not be any larger but we get access to more choices and clothing possibilities.  When we drive B down to zero, our wardrobe is no larger and we are worse off with fewer choices.

Returning to the economy, I don't want to say that it's impossible for increases in imports to drag the economy.  For example, if oil prices rise, the imports number measured in dollars will likely rise, and the economy will likely be worse off as we have to give up buying other things to continue to buy the oil we need.  But, absent major price changes, drops in exports more likely just mirror drops in C+I+G.  If consumers are hurting, they spend less on everything, including imported goods.   At the end of the day, none of these numbers (Mr. Keynes, are you listening?) are independent variables.

Postscript:  By the way, the trade deficit is a mirage in another way - it looks at only a subset of trans-national financial transactions.   The flow of dollars is (mostly) always in balance.  So if we are net sending dollars overseas when trading hard goods, the dollars come back in foreign purchases of investments and financial goods (which aren't included in the trade numbers).  Saying we have a trade deficit is the same as saying we have a net investment surplus.  For you physical scientists out there, measuring the trade deficit is like drawing your box around the process wrong such that you miss some of the forces.

If you really want to know our trade problem, it's not the trade deficit per se, but the fact that the funds coming back via investments are largely invested in value-destroying government debt rather than productive investments.

What Musicians and ExxonMobil Have in Common: Both Get "Ripped Off" By Consumers

We have all heard that artists make very little money from their songs, and get "ripped off"by record labels and other folks in the chain.  I have always had mixed reactions to this.  I have no doubt that, with zero power and a burning desire to "make it big", young acts sign uneven deals with record labels.  However, I find it hard to believe that Beyonce is getting hosed in that negotiation.

I saw this chart in TechDirt about where the money consumers spend on music goes (I think this is for a CD sale):

4788891305_c9eecd1fdd

So the performers themselves get about 9% of the retail price after everyone in the chain is paid.  That certainly seems paltry -- after all, they are the owners and creators of the music.  Everyone else is just in the service chain to make sure the music reaches the customers, all the accounting is done, the legal documents are correct, etc.

But it turns out that they may not be doing that badly.  I am a shareholder of ExxonMobil (XOM).  I own a piece of all the oil that XOM owns and controls, along with all the other shareholders.  Think of us as the band, though a really big band with lots of players.   That oil we own, like the band's music, has a ton of value.  When sold as raw crude, it goes for $40-$60 a barrel nowadays.  When sold in pieces (such as gasoline, or asphalt, or lubrication oil) it can sell for hundreds of dollars a barrel.

But out of those proceeds, we have to pay people to help us.  We have to pay managers, and lawyers.  We have to pay oilfield services companies and equipment companies and transportation companies.  We have to pay retailers.  When all those payments are made, before taxes, in 2014 we were left with just under 8% of every dollar we sell.  We own all this oil and we are not even getting as much as a musician!

And XOM shareholders do pretty well.  Owners of Wal-Mart only get about 3% of every dollar they sell.   In my company, I get about 5% of every dollar I sell.   And those evil health insurers?  Their shareholders get just over 2% of every dollar sold (all based on 2014 full-year financials).

Does that mean that Exxon shareholders are getting "ripped off" by Haliburton and Burlington Northern?  Is Wal-Mart getting ripped off by Proctor and Gamble?  Is Humana getting ripped off by GE imaging?  No?

I will reveal the ugly secret:  There is one person who is "ripping off" all of these folks, from Exxon to Rihanna to me.  That person is.... the consumer.  Yep, there are certainly many examples of people signing bad contracts in all these businesses, but the only entity systematically and consistently ripping all these folks off is us.  Because in a capitalist economy, we have the ultimate power.  We drive down the street to get the gas that is 10 cents cheaper, we now shop for our books and TVs at Wal-Mart and Amazon rather than at Borders and Best Buy, and we buy 99-cent individual songs on iTunes instead of buying a whole CD of songs we don't want for $14.99.

Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.

Newsflash: Apparently, Obamacare will Reduce Full-Time Employment. Who Would Have Guessed?

The Washington Post reports on an updated CBO report:

The Affordable Care Act will reduce the number of full-time workers by more than two million in coming years, congressional budget analysts said Tuesday in the most detailed analysis of the law’s impact on jobs.

After obtaining coverage through the health law, some workers may forgo employment, while others may reduce hours, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. Low-wage workers are the most likely to drop out of the workforce as a result of the law, it said. The CBO said the law’s impact on jobs mostly would be felt after 2016.

This almost certainly underestimates the impact.   Why?  Well, one reason is that a lot of full-time jobs were switched to part-time jobs way back in late 2012.  That is what our company did.  Why so early?  Because according to rules in place at the time (rules that have since been delayed at least a year) the accounting period for who would be considered full-time for the purpose of ACA penalties would be determined by an accounting period that started January 1, 2013.  So, if a business wanted an employee to be considered part-time on January 1, 2014 (the original date employer sanctions were to begin), the changes to that employees hours had to be put in place in late 2012.  More on this here in Forbes.

In addition, this CBO report is  a static analysis of existing business.  It does not seem to include any provisions for businesses that have dialed back on investment and expansion in response to the ACA (we have certainly cut back our planned investments, and we can't be the only ones.)  This effect is suggested (but certainly not proven) by this chart.

click to enlarge

The sequester and government shutdown were cited by the Left as reasons for a sluggish economy.  Which government action seems most correlated with a flattening in job growth?

 

EPA Enhancing Its Power with Sue and Settle

Congress has ceded far, far too much legislative power to Administration agencies like the EPA.  The only check that exists for that power is process -- regulators have to go through fairly elaborate and lengthy steps, including several full stops to publish draft rules and collect public comment.  A lot of garbage gets through this process, but at least the worst can be halted by a public or Congressional outcry to draft rules.

But like most government officials, regulators resent having any kind of check on their power.  Just like police look for ways to conduct searches without warrants, and even the President looks for ways to rule without Congress, the EPA wants to regulate unfettered by public comment process.

The EPA has found a clever and totally scary way around this.  In short, they collude with a friendly environmental group which sues the EPA seeking certain rules that the EPA believes to be too controversial to survive the regulatory process.  The EPA settles with the friendly group, and a consent decree is issued imposing the new rules, entirely bypassing any rules-making or public comment process.  The EPA then pretends that they were "forced" into these new rules, and as a kicker, the taxpayer funds the whole thing by making large payoffs to the environmental group who initiated the suit part of the settlement.  Larry Bell describes the process:

“Sue and settle “ practices, sometimes referred to as “friendly lawsuits”, are cozy deals through which far-left radical environmental groups file lawsuits against federal agencies wherein  court-ordered “consent decrees” are issued based upon a prearranged settlement agreement they collaboratively craft together in advance behind closed doors. Then, rather than allowing the entire process to play out, the agency being sued settles the lawsuit by agreeing to move forward with the requested action both they and the litigants want.

And who pays for this litigation? All-too-often we taxpayers are put on the hook for legal fees of both colluding parties. According to a 2011 GAO report, this amounted to millions of dollars awarded to environmental organizations for EPA litigations between 1995 and 2010. Three “Big Green” groups received 41% of this payback, with Earthjustice accounting for 30 percent ($4,655,425).  Two other organizations with histories of lobbying for regulations EPA wants while also receiving agency funding are the American Lung Association (ALA) and the Sierra Club.

In addition, the Department of Justice forked over at least $43 million of our money defending EPA in court between 1998 and 2010. This didn’t include money spent by EPA for their legal costs in connection with those rip-offs because EPA doesn’t keep track of their attorney’s time on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has concluded that Sue and Settle rulemaking is responsible for many of EPA’s “most controversial, economically significant regulations that have plagued the business community for the past few years”. Included are regulations on power plants, refineries, mining operations, cement plants, chemical manufacturers, and a host of other industries. Such consent decree-based rulemaking enables EPA to argue to Congress: “The court made us do it.”

Wherein I Tell The Census Bureau to Take a Leap

Every year I am required by law to fill out what is called the "Accommodation Report" by the Census Bureau.  As a lodging company (we run campgrounds) I must reveal my revenues and some of my expenses.  They ask for numbers aggregated differently from how we collect them for GAAP, so it is not a simple exercise.  But I do it under protest, even though several of my competitors do not seem to be similarly punished with this requirement.

Well, I don't actually fully comply.  We run over 150 small locations, and technically I am supposed to fill out an 8-page accommodation survey for every one of them.  This would take a week of my time.  So I pretend I have only one campground and report my summary revenue numbers for all our campgrounds as if they were for one location.   Also, a year ago the Census folks began demanding the data quarterly, and I told them to pound sand, that I was on the verge of not doing the annual report and so I definitely was not going to do all that work quarterly.

Well, this year it got worse.  For some reason, the survey this year had 3 extra pages asking me to break down my expenses in detail, in many categories that do not match those that I use in my bookkeeping.  Here is an example page:

 

First, not only do I not have time to figure this out (who tracks software purchases as its own item in the accounting system?), but it is not the government's business, particularly given that I am a private company.  Even the IRS is not this intrusive.

Further, at best the data I report will be used for nothing.  More likely, it will be used to justify new taxes on me, new regulations on me, or new subsidies for my competitors.  I have no desire to aid any of these activities.

Postscript:  And you know what I have zero patience with? -- otherwise free market academic economists who support this kind of data gathering because it is critical.  Yes, I am sure they much prefer to get free statistics for their work gathered via government coercion  rather than have to pay for it, as one would have to do if we relied on private companies to gather this data rather than the government.  There is absolutely no difference between an economist supporting government statistics gathering and any other company or individual asking that the government subsidize their inputs.  But, but, we are critical to the country!  Yeah, the sugar industry says the same thing.

Incredible Level of Cronyism

I am simply amazed at this level of cronyism enjoyed by the sugar industry -- import restrictions on cheaper world sugar, price supports, and government loans that can be paid back with excess product rather than cash.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is likely to buy sugar in the domestic market this year in order to drive prices up and prevent defaults on loans made to sugar processors, according to a USDA economist.

The USDA estimates it would need to buy 400,000 tons of sugar to boost prices to an “acceptable level,” said Barbara Fecso, an economist at the department. A purchase of 400,000 tons would amount to about 4.4% of projected U.S. sugar production in the marketing year that ends Sept. 30.

Domestic sugar prices have been trading at about 20 cents a pound, their lowest level in nearly four years, putting companies that make sugar from cane or beets at risk of defaulting on loans they received from the USDA when prices were higher.

People talk about these supposed government subsidies for oil companies, but every time I see a list of them they are dominated by things like depletion allowances, FIFO accounting, and investment tax credits, which are either standard accounting rules that apply to all industries or tax credits that apply to all manufacturers.  But Big Sugar gets real heavy-duty subsidies no one, except maybe ethanol companies and other farmers, get.

When Low Interest Rates are Anti-Stimulus

We have heard about the difficulty folks who are retired are having with low interest rates.  But low interest rates are having a huge impact on corporations that still have defined-benefit pensions.

Across America's business landscape, the gap between the amount that companies expect to owe retirees and what they have on hand to pay them was an estimated $347 billion at the end of 2012. That is better than the $386 billion gap recorded at the end of 2011, but the two years represent the worst deficits ever, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

The firm estimates that companies now hold only $81 of every $100 promised to pensioners.

In general, everything happening on the liability side of the pension equation is working against companies. A big source of the problem: persistently low interest rates, set largely by the Federal Reserve....

Pension liabilities change over time as employees enter and leave a pension plan. For financial-reporting purposes, companies use a so-called discount rate to calculate the present value of payments they expect to make over the life of their plan.

The discount rate serves as a proxy for the hypothetical interest rate that an insurance company would expect on a bond today to fund a company's future pension payments. The lower the discount rate, the greater the company's pension liabilities.

Boeing's discount rate, for example, fell to 3.8% last year from 6.2% in 2007. The aircraft manufacturer said in a securities filing that a 0.25-percentage-point decrease in its discount rate would add $3.1 billion to its projected pension obligations.

Boeing reported a net pension deficit of $19.7 billion at the end of 2012.

The discount rate is based on the yields of highly rated corporate bonds—double-A or higher—with maturities equal to the expected schedule of pension-benefit payouts.

Moody's decision last summer to lower the credit rating of big banks hurt UPS and other companies by booting those banks out of the calculation. And because bonds issued by some of those banks carried higher yields than other bonds used in the calculation, UPS's discount rate fell 1.20 percentage points.

This is obviously not a wildly productive use of corporate funds, to divert ever-increasing amounts of money to pay people who are no longer producing.  But at least corporations are acknowledged the problem (I will give credit where it is due -- thanks to accounting rules and government regulations that force a fair amount of transparency here).

It is interesting to note the Boeing example, where their expected rate of return on pension funds fell from 6.2% to 3.8%.  Compare that to corrupt government entities like Calpers, which bravely faced this new reality by cutting its discount rate from an absurd 7.75% to a still absurd 7.5%.  This despite returns last year around 1%.  By keeping the number artificially high, Calpers is hiding its underfunding problem.  An interesting reform would be to force Calpers to use a discount rate equal to the average of that used by the 10 largest private pension funds.

Counting Coup

The fiscal settlement passed last night did absolutely nothing to improve the deficit or the financial sanity of government.  Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, was to let Democrats count coup on rich people as a reward for winning the last election.  It's like telling your kids that on their birthday, you will take them to do absolutely anything they like, and Democrats chose to display their disdain for rich people as their one act of celebration.    A few other observations:

  • I had expected that they would gen up a bunch of fake savings and accounting tricks to pretend there were spending cuts in proportion to tax increases, but apparently they did not feel the need to bother.  Essentially only trivial spending cuts were included.
  • At what point can we officially declare that the reduction in doctor reimbursement rates that supposedly paid for much of Obamacare is a great lie and will never happen?  Congress once again extended the "doc fix" another year, eliminating the single largest source of savings that was to fund Obamacare.  Congress has been playing this same game  -- using elimination of the doc fix to supposedly fund programs and then quietly renewing the doc fix later -- for over a decade
  • The restoration of the FICA tax is probably a good thing.  Though I think the reality is something else, people still think of these as premiums that pay for future benefits, so in the spirit of good pricing, the premiums should reflect the true costs.  And FICA premiums have always been set about at the right level (it is only the fact that past Congresses spent all the money supposedly banked for future generations that Social Security has a financial problem).  In fact, we should raise Medicare premiums as well.
  • Apparently, though I have not seen the list, this last minute deal was chock full of corporate cronyism, with a raft of special interst tax preferences thrown into the mix.

And so ends, I suppose, the 12-year saga of the Bush tax cuts, with tax cuts for the rich revoked and the rest made permanent.   The establishment media decided early on that it was going to run with the story line that these cuts were "for the rich."  The irony, that will never get any play, is that now, at the end, it is all too clear that this was far from the case.  Reversing the tax cuts to the rich only reversed a small percentage of the original tax cuts.  In fact, if the Bush tax cuts had been mainly for the rich, then the Democrats would not have even bothered addressing the fiscal cliff.

Geometrically Proliferating License Requirements Are Driving Me Nuts

I frequently write here that almost never does a month go by, even in a state where I have operated for over 10 years, that I don't discover yet another tax I owe or license I must obtain.

Today, I got a note from the state of Arizona that we must license our two septic pumping trucks with the state.  Already, these are licensed each year with the County in which they operate, a process that includes a fee (of course) and an inspection by the County.  Now I have to fill out a bunch of forms to send the exact same information to the state, with yet another fee (of course) and the need for another inspection each year by the County.  I asked if my current County license would suffice to cover the inspection, and I was told no.  So, to operate this truck in Arizona I must

  • Fill out forms and send fee to County
  • Get inspected by County
  • Fill out forms with the same information as already sent to County and send fee to State
  • Get inspected yet again by County, but this time on the state form
  • Repeat every year

It is interesting to note that the state does nothing except file my form and bank the fee.  This is just another money and power grab -- more cash for the bureaucracy and yet another useless task (filing these forms and sending out compliance letters, etc) to justify their headcount.  Then the next time someone suggests "brutal cuts" to state budgets, everyone can scream that the rivers will run brown with sewage because the state won't have the people to collect all the paperwork that duplicates what the County already collects.

Just after wasting an hour or two of my time with this (and sending it to my managers to waste days of their time), I got a happy note from the US Census Bureau that I had been selected to file quarterly reports about my business (they have a special survey of the lodging business -- I presume they do this for other industries as well).  I wrote back:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am not sure what we have done wrong to be punished with this extra workload, but unless I hear back from you that this report is required of us by law under threat of some sort of dire consequence, we will not be filling it out.

We are a small company and only I, the President, am equipped to fill out this form.  We already fill out your annual survey and it is incredibly time-consuming for us, for it asks for data in ways we do not normally track it.  Further, it asks for our P&L in a form that does not match GAAP accounting, which causes all sorts of difficulties in completing it.  And we don’t normally compile results on a quarterly basis, only annual, so this report would be particularly onerous.  We actually have to run a business here.

Finally, I might add, I am loathe to send the government yet more data since this data will likely just be used as a justification to raise my taxes or increase our regulatory burden.

So no thanks.

PS- let's just assume the "you have a crappy job" jokes have already been made and move forward from there in the comments.

Privatization Updates

While this may be familiar territory for readers of this blog, I have a post up at the Privatization blog on the history of private operation of public parks.  In this article I quoted one of my favorite over-wrought criticisms of private operation of parks, this time from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The question is, how will these agreements work over time? If parks remain open using donations, what is the incentive for legislators to put money for parks in the general fund budget? And who is going to stop a rich crook or pot dealer from taking a park off the closure list and using it for fiendish pursuits?

LOL.  "Fiendish pursuits?"

I also had an article there a while back about government accounting systems and how they make such privatization efforts difficult:

Back when I was in the corporate world, "Make-Buy" decisions -- decisions as to whether the company should do some task itself or outsource it to companies with particular expertise or low costs in that area -- were quite routine.  Even in the corporate world, though, where accounting systems are built to produce product line profitability statements and to do activity-based costing, this kind of analysis is easy to get wrong (in particular, practitioners frequently confuse average versus marginal costs).

But if these analyses are tricky in the private world, they are almost impossible to do well in the public sphere.  Grady Gammage, a senior and highly respected research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute, has as much experience with public policy analysis as anyone in the state.  Several years ago, he spent months digging into the financial numbers of Arizona State Parks, with the full cooperation of that agency.  A critical question of the study was how much it actually cost to operate a park, vs. do all the other resource and grant management tasks the agency is asked to perform.  Despite a lot of effort by Gammage and his staff, he told me once that the best he could do was make an educated guess --plus or minus several million dollars -- as to how much of the Agency's budget is spent actually operating parks vs. performing other tasks.

The reasons that this is so hard is that the parks agency's budgeting process was not set up to determine true net operating gains and losses at parks.  It was set up, like most public accounting systems, to enforce accountability to different pools of money that have been allocated by the legislature for certain tasks.  This tends to lead to three classes of problems that cause public make-buy decisions, as well as ex post facto third-party analyses, so difficult.  Since I am most familiar with the parks world, I will discuss these three issues in the context of parks:

Current Oil Boom Only A Surprise to Those Who Don't Understand Markets

There is nothing surprising or unpredictable about the current oil boom, except perhaps how far it has gotten in the face of an Administration that has done virtually everything it can to stop it  (thank god there is oil and gas under private land).  Your humble scribe, neither an economist nor an expert in oil markets, wrote way back in 2005:

Everything old is new again.  Back in the late 70′s, all the talk was about the world running out of oil.  Everywhere you looked, "experts" were predicting that we would run out of oil.  Many had us running out of oil in 1985, while the most optimistic didn’t have us running out of oil until the turn of the century.  Prices at the time had spiked to about $65 a barrel (in 2004 dollars), about where they are today.  Of course, it turned out that the laws of supply and demand had not been repealed, and after Reagan removed oil price controls and goofy laws like the windfall profits tax, demand and supply came back in balance, and prices actually returned to their historical norms....

 Supply and demand work to close resource gaps.  In fact, it has never not worked.  The Cassandras of the world have predicted over the centuries that we would run out of thousands of different things.  Everything from farmland to wood to tungsten have at one time or another been close to exhaustion.  And you know what, these soothsayers of doom are 0-for-4153 in their predictions. ...

The vagaries of reserve accounting are very difficult for outsiders to understand.  I am not an expert, but one thing I have come to understand is that reserve numbers are not like measuring the water level in a tank.  There is a lot more oil in the ground than can ever be recovered, and just what percentage can be recovered depends on how much you are willing to do (and spend) to get it out.  Some oil will come out under its own pressure.  The next bit has to be pumped out.  The next bit has to be forced out with water injection.  The next bit may come out with steam or CO2 flooding.  In other words, how much oil you think will be recoverable from a field, ie the reserves, depends on how much you are willing to invest, which in turn depends on prices.  Over time, you will find that certain fields will have very different reserves numbers at $70 barrel oil than at $25....

All the oil doomsayers tend to define the problem as follows:  Oil production from current fields using current methods and technologies will peak soon.  Well, OK, but that sure defines the problem kind of narrowly.  The last time oil prices were at this level ($65 in 2004 dollars), most of the oil companies and any number of startups were gearing up to start production in a variety of new technologies.  I know that when I was working for Exxon in the early 80′s, they had a huge project in the works for recovering oil from oil shales and sands.  Once prices when back in the tank, these projects were mothballed, but there is no reason why they won’t get restarted if oil prices stay high.

Postscript:  I really need to find new topics to blog about.  The adjacent article in 2005 included this, a frequent topic on this site.  I had not idea I was writing about this so long ago:

When health care is paid for by public funds, politicians only need to argue that some behavior affects health, and therefore increases the state’s health care costs, to justify regulating the crap out of that behavior.  Already, states have essentially nationalized the cigarette industry based on this argument.

Engineering Intuition and The Media

I don't really want to ridicule Kevin Drum here for thinking out loud.  I really hate partisan Conservative and Liberal team-politics blogs, but I read a few to stay out of the echo chamber, and Drum is smarter and incrementally more objective (a relative thing) than most.

But this is really terrible, awful engineering intuition:

These two things together reminded me about an energy factoid that's always struck me as slightly odd: virtually every form of energy seems to be almost as efficient as burning oil, but not quite.

For example, on either a power/weight basis or a cost basis, batteries are maybe 2x or 3x bigger and less efficient than an internal combustion engine. Not 50x or 100x. Just barely less efficient. And you see the same thing in electricity generation. Depending on how you do the accounting, nuclear power is maybe about as efficient as an oil-fired plant, or maybe 2x or 3x less efficient. Ditto for solar. And for wind. And geothermal. And tidal power.

I'm just noodling vaguely here. Maybe there's an obvious thermodynamic explanation that I'm missing. It's just that I wouldn't be surprised if there were lots of ways of generating energy that were all over the map efficiency-wise. But why are there lots of ways of generating energy that are all surprisingly similar efficiency-wise? In the great scheme of things, a difference of 2x or 3x is practically invisible.

First, we have to translate a bit.  He mentions power to weight ratios for batteries in the second paragraph.  In fact, batteries have terrible power (actually energy storage) to weight ratios vs. fossil fuels, much worse than 2-3x for energy storage per unit of weight or volume.  That is why gasoline is still the transportation energy source of choice, because very few things short of plutonium have so much potential energy locked up in so little volume.  But I will assume he is comparing an entire electric drive system compared to a gasoline drive system (including not just energy storage but the drive itself) and in this case the power to weight ratios are indeed closer.

But here is the problem:  in engineering, a 2-3x difference in most anything -- strength, energy efficiency, whatever -- is a really big deal.  It's the difference between 15 and 45 MPG.   Perhaps this is Moore's Law corrupting our intuition.  We see electronic equipment becoming twice as powerful every 18 months, and we start to assume that 2x is not that much of a difference.

But this is why Moore's Law is so much discussed, because of its very uniqueness.  In most fields, engineers tinker for decades for incremental improvements, sometimes in the single digit percentages.

The fact that alternative energy supporters feel like their preferred technologies are just so close, meaning they are only 2x-3x less efficient than current technologies, explains a lot about why we skeptics of these technologies have a hard time getting through to them.

Wal-Mart's Bribery Problems

Walter Olson has been writing a lot about Wal-Mart and FCPA.  I don't have a lot to add except my own experience working for a large corporation in third world countries.

I worked for a manufacturer of industrial equipment for years.  In most countries in Europe and North America, part of our strategy was a dedicated in-house sales force that could provide a high level of technical support.  But we went away from that strategy when we went into third world countries, just the place where we needed more rather than less technical support for our customers.

Why?  A big reason was the FCPA.  There are many countries where it is simply impossible to do business without paying bribes.  Bribes are absolutely wired into the regulatory process.  In Nigeria, public officials are paid less with the expectation they will make it up on bribes, similar to the way we pay waiters who get tips.  The only way to legally work in these countries is to work through third party resellers and distributors and other such partners, and then tightly close your eyes to how they get things done.

What always ticks me off about these cases is the fake attitude of naivite in the press that seems to be constantly amazed that corporations might have to pay bribes to do basic things we take for granted here, like get the water turned on or have your goods put on a ship.  But in fact reporters can't be this naive, as they almost certainly have to deal with many of the same things in their business.  I would love to see an accounting of the grease payments the NY Times pays in a year in foreign countries.

I think most people when they hear these foreign bribery cases assume corporations were paying to get a special advantage or to escape some sort of fundamental regulation.  And this is possibly the case with Wal-Mart, but more likely they were simply paying because that is what you have to do just to function at all.

Everything I Need To Know About The Effect of Metrics on Police Behavior I Learned from The Wire

Scathing report on how NY police gamed the process to improve their reported crime numbers.  Nothing in this should be the least surprising to anyone who watched a few seasons of The Wire.

These are not just accounting shenanigans.  There were actions the directly affected the public and individual liberty.  People were rounded up on the street on BS charges to pad arrest stats while real, substantial crimes went ignored in a bid to keep them out of the reported stats.

There is one part in here that is a good illustration of public vs. private power.  People who fear corporations seem to have infinite trust for state institutions.  But the worst a corporation was ever able to do to a whistle blower was fire him.  This is what the state does:

For more than two years, Adrian Schoolcraftsecretly recorded every roll call at the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn and captured his superiors urging police officers to do two things in order to manipulate the "stats" that the department is under pressure to produce: Officers were told to arrest people who were doing little more than standing on the street, but they were also encouraged to disregard actual victims of serious crimes who wanted to file reports.

Arresting bystanders made it look like the department was efficient, while artificially reducing the amount of serious crime made the commander look good.

In October 2009, Schoolcraft met with NYPD investigators for three hours and detailed more than a dozen cases of crime reports being manipulated in the district. Three weeks after that meeting—which was supposed to have been kept secret from Schoolcraft's superiors—his precinct commander and a deputy chief ordered Schoolcraft to be dragged from his apartment and forced into the Jamaica Hospital psychiatric ward for six days.

Public vs. Private

Folks on the Left prefer public institutions over private ones because they percieve them as more "fair."  But the power of lawmaking and police and prisons allows public institutions to be far more abusive than private entities could ever be.  We spent months and years torturing ourselves about accounting abuses at Enron, but these are trivial compared the accounting shenanigans state institutions engage in every day.

Or consider this, from Europe, particularly the first bit

“In the event of default (i) any non-official bond holder is junior to all official creditors and (ii) the issuer reserves the right to change law as needed to negate any rights of the nonofficial bond holder.

.

“We should not underestimate the damage these steps have inflicted on Europe’s €8.4 trillion sovereign bond markets. For example, the Italian government has issued bonds with a face value of over €1.6 trillion. The groups holding these bonds are banks, pension funds, insurance companies, and Italian households. These investors bought them as safe, low-return instruments that could be used to hedge liabilities and provide for future income needs. It was once hard to imagine these could ever be restructured or default.

.

“Now, however, it is clear they are not safe. They have default risk, and their ultimate value is subject to the political constraint and subjective decisions by a collective of individuals in the Italian government and society, the ECB, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An investor buying an Italian bond today needs to forecast an immediate, complex process that has been evolving in unpredictable ways. Investors naturally want a high return in order to bear these risks.

.

“Investors must also weigh carefully the costs and benefits to them of official intervention. Each time official creditors provide loans or buy bonds, the nonofficial holders become more subordinated, because official creditors including the IMF, ECB, and now the European Union continue to claim preferential status.”

This is not to say that bondholders in private entities don't get crammed down in a refinancing or bankruptcy.  But here we are talking about differential treatment of holders of the exact same class, even issue, of securities.

These Are The Folks Who Are Wrapping Themselves in the Mantle of "Science"

Oops.  Accounting error seriously overestimates benefits of biofuels.  

The European Union is overestimating the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through reliance on biofuels as a result of a “serious accounting error,” according to a draft opinion by an influential committee of 19 scientists and academics.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee writes that the role of energy from crops like biofuels in curbing warming gases should be measured by how much additional carbon dioxide such crops absorb beyond what would have been absorbed anyway by existing fields, forests and grasslands.

Instead, the European Union has been “double counting” some of the savings, according to the draft opinion, which was prepared by the committee in May and viewed this week by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

The committee said that the error had crept into European Union regulations because of a “misapplication of the original guidance” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense since it assumes that all burning of biomass does not add carbon to the air,” the committee wrote.

Duh.  This has been a known fact to about everyone else, as most independent studies not done by a corn-state university have found ethanol to have, at best, zero utility in reducing atmospheric CO2.

It is worth noting that the EU would likely have never made this admission had it solely been under the pressure of skeptics, for whom this is just one of a long list of fairly obvious errors in climate-related science.  But several years ago, environmental groups jumped on the skeptic bandwagon opposing ethanol, both for its lack of efficacy in reducing emissions as well as the impact of increasing ethanol product on land use and food prices.

Weird Coincidences

I spent four days last week trying to get my online backup file restored for Quickbooks, our accounting software.

One morning, we woke up and found our entire QB file corrupted.  I would insert cautions to QB users about such occurrences, but I think everyone already knows the problem.  Such a warning would be like reminding a New York resident about street crime.  We QB users always feel like we are walking on eggshells with QB, ready at any moment for everything to go haywire.  We live with it, because the program is useful and ubiquitous.

So I perform a backup every day, but recently started using the QB online backup facility.  This automatically backs up the file every day.  I still make a local backup from time to time, but I have gotten lazy.  When things went south the other day, my online backup was 10 days old, an eternity in our business.  I sent QB our file to try to execute a repair, but in the mean time I went to the restore command to restore the most recent online backup before the corruption.

Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  After four tries, each 3 hours each, I got the idea maybe it was not going to work.  So I called QB and got their Phillipines tech support desk.  They walked me through some steps.  Fail. Fail. Fail.

Through all this time, we were entirely shut down accounting-wise.  Finally, in exasperation, I asked them to just post my backup file on an FTP server somewhere.  After all, we could both see the file exists, and it was just the QB proprietary file transfer protocol that was failing to restore it.  Well, three countries and four departments later, no one could post the file on an FTP server.  Or to my Amazon S3 account.  Or to a password-protected web page.

For God sakes, this is a software company?  Finally, they agreed to have someone at the third party contractor who runs the servers try to put the file on a DVD and mail it to me, LOL.

It was almost exactly at this point that I opened this XKCD comic:

I tell you, sometimes that site is totally dialed into my brain.  (by the way, as I blog, a signed version of this comic on the wall behind my monitor).

PS- eventually the Quickbooks people rebuilt my corrupted file before I could ever get the backup in my hands.  Object lesson here - don't ever give up on the original file, the Intuit guys have twice in my life fixed a file that seemed corrupted beyond all hope of recovery.

WTF? This is What They Mean by Oil and Gas Subsidies?

When the Left has talked about oil and gas subsidies, I have generally nodded my head and agreed that any such things should be eliminated, just as they should be eliminated for all industries.   They have in the past thrown out huge numbers for such subsidies that seemed high, but I have not really questioned them.  But then I see this chart at Kevin Drum's site

Seriously, nearly half the "subsidy" number is the ability of a company to use LIFO accounting on inventory for their taxes?  Since the proposition is to eliminate these only for oil and gas, what is the logic that somehow LIFO accounting is wrong in Oil and Gas but OK in every other industry?   In fact, at least the first two largest items are both accounting rules that apply to all manufacturing industry.  So, rather than advocating for the elimination of special status for oil and gas, as I thought the argument was, they are in fact arguing that oil and gas going forward be treated in a unique and special way by the tax code, separate from every other manufacturing industry.

In fact, many of these are merely changes to the amortization and depreciation rate for up-front investments.  Typically, politicians of both parties have advocated for the current rules to encourage investment.  Now I suppose we are fine-tuning the rules, so that we encourage investment in the tax code in everything but oil and gas.  I will say this does seem to be consistent with Obama Administration jobs policy, which has been to try to stimulate businesses that are going nowhere and hold back the one business (oil and gas drilling) that is actually trying to grow.  I am fine with stopping the use of the tax code to try to channel private investment in politician-preferred directions.  But changing the decision rule from "using the tax code to encourage all manufacturing investment" to "using the tax code to encourage investment only in the industries we are personally sympathetic to" is just making the interventionism worse.

This is really weak.  Not to mention flawed.  Unless I am missing something, a change from LIFO to FIFO or some other inventory valuation rules will create a one-time change in income (and thus taxes) when the change is made.  LIFO only creates sustained reductions in taxable income, and thus taxes, if your raw materials prices are consistently rising (it actually increases taxes vs. FIFO if input prices are falling).  Given that oil and gas prices are volatile, its hard to see how this does much except extract a one-time tax payment from oil companies at the changeover.

By the way, I am pretty sure I would be all for ending government spending on "ultra-deepwater and unconventional natural gas and other petroleum research," though ironically this is exactly the kind of basic research the Left loves the government to perform.

Mandating Faulty Accounting to Reach Absurd MPG Standards

President Obama wants a 56.2 mile per gallon standard for cars by 2025.  Both advocates and opponents of this say the only way to make this is if everyone drives an electric car or plug in hybrid.  But the fact of the matter is, even those don't get 56.2 mpg, except through an accounting fiction.

A while back I ran the numbers on the Nissan Leaf. According to the EPA, this car gets an equivalent of 99 MPG.  But that is only by adopting the fiction of looking only at the efficiency in converting electricity to power in the wheels.  But the electricity comes from somewhere (the marginal kilowatt almost certainly comes from a fossil fuel) and the new EPA methodology completely ignores conversion efficiency of fuel to electricity.  Here is how I explained it at Forbes:

The problem is that, using this methodology, the EPA is comparing apples to oranges.   The single biggest energy loss in fossil fuel combustion is the step when we try to capture useful mechanical work (ie spinning a driveshaft in a car or a generator in a power plant) from the heat of the fuel’s combustion.  Even the most efficient processes tend to capture only half of the potential energy of the fuel.   There can be other losses in the conversion and distribution chain, but this is by far the largest.

The EPA is therefore giving the electric vehicle a huge break.  When we measure mpg on a traditional car, the efficiency takes a big hit due to the conversion efficiencies and heat losses in combustion.  The same thing happens when we generate electricity, but the electric car in this measurement is not being saddled with these losses, even though we know they still occur in the system.

Lets consider an analogy.  We want to measure how efficiently two different workers can install a refrigerator in a customer’s apartment.  In both cases the customer lives in a fourth floor walkup.  The first installer finds the refrigerator has been left on the street.  He has to spend much of his time struggling to haul the appliance up four flights of stairs.  After that, relatively speaking, the installation is a breeze.  The second installer finds his refrigerator has thoughtfully been delivered right to the customer’s door on the fourth floor.  He quickly brings the unit inside and completes the installation.

So who is a better installer?  If one only looks at the installer’s time, the second person looks orders of magnitude better.  But we know that he is only faster because he offloaded much of the work on the delivery guys.  If we were to look at the total time of the delivery person plus the installer, we’d probably find they were much closer in their productivity.  The same is true of the mileage standards — by the EPA’s metric, the electric vehicle looks much better than the traditional vehicle, but that is only because someone else at the power plant had to do the really hard bit of work that the traditional auto must do itself.  Having electricity rather than gasoline in the tank is the equivalent of starting with the refrigerator at the top rather than the bottom of the stairs.

The DOE has actually published a better methodology, going from "well to wheels," creating a true comparable efficiency for electric cars to gasoline engine cars.  By this methodology, the Nissan Leaf all electric car only gets 36 MPG!  In fact, no current electric car would meet the 56.2 MPG standard if the accounting were done correctly.  Which is why the EPA had to create a biased, inaccurate MPG equivalent measure for electric vehicles to artificially support this Presidential initiative.

Medicare and Social Security Trustee Reports

Here is some analysis of these reports. A few things I found interesting

  • I have always understood the "trust funds" for these programs were a crock, that we had spent the money in these funds years ago.  But the accounting fiction is important for a reason I did not know - when the trust fund is used up from an accounting standpoint  (vs. a cash standpoint, where it is not only already used up but never existed) in 2036 or whenever, statutory authority for spending is capped at annual tax collections, which at that point will be way, way below programmed spending levels.
  • Medicare alone is projected to grow to 6% of GDP.  wow.
  • The reality of Obamacare's promises of cost reductions is starting to appear, as already these supposed cost reductions are being discounted by folks who have accountability for getting the numbers right.

One thing to note -- Social Security actually has some shot at being repaired, because benefits are a fixed, predictable amount (as long as your actuarial tables are right).  Medicare and Medicaid are far harder, because the benefits are open ended, and every recent "fix" has tended to shift incentives to encourage rather than discourage more spending.  Note, for an example, the political pressure to eliminate the part D donut hole that actually is there to provide incentives to camp drug spending and prices.

Shareholder Suits

From Overlawyered today:

"A new study in the Financial Analysts Journal casts serious doubt on the premise [of litigation social efficiency], at least when it comes to shareholder class actions. In most cases, the authors found, the litigation mainly serves to punish shareholders who have already suffered from a downturn in their stock. Only suits targeting illegal insider trading, and to a lesser extent, accounting fraud were associated with subsequent higher long-term returns."

Way back in early 2006 (have I been blogging so long?) I was guest blogging at Overlawyered and I wrote this:

But from a philosophical standpoint, shareholder suits have never made much sense to me. While I can understand the shareholders of the company suing a minority shareholder who might be enriching themselves disproportionately (e.g. Rigas family at Adelphia), suits by shareholders against the company they own seem"¦ crazy.

Any successful verdict for shareholders against the company would effectively come out of the pockets of the company's owners who are.. the shareholders. So in effect, shareholders are suing themselves, and, win or lose, they as a group end up with less than if the suit had never been started, since a good chunk of the payout goes to the lawyers. The only way these suits make financial sense (except to the lawyers, like Bill Lerach) is if only a small subset of the shareholders participate, and then these are just vehicles for transferring money from half the shareholders to the other half, or in other words from one wronged party that does not engage in litigation to another wronged party who is aggressively litigious. Is there really justice here?

OK, you could argue that many of these shareholders are not suing themselves, because they are past shareholders that dumped their stock at a loss. But given these facts, these suits are even less fair. If these suits are made by past shareholders who held stock (ie, were the owners) at the time certain wrongs were committed, they are in fact paid by current and future shareholders who may well have not even owned the company at the time of the abuses, and who may in fact be participating in cleaning the company up. So these litigants are in effect making the argument that because the company was run unethically when they owned it, they are going to sue the people who bought it from them and cleaned it up? Shouldn't the payment be the other way around, with past owners paying current owners for the mess they left?

I understand that theoretically they might have an incentive improvement from the threat of these suits that improves corporate governance.  But this is mitigated by the fact that most corporations consider these suits to be random landmines without merit, to be avoided if possible, to be settled if necessary, but that have little bearing on the underlying governance of the company.

Is GM's Equity Real?

There was a fair amount of blog reporting on GM's IPO papers, focusing on various outsized risks reported in those documents.   But for someone who has read a fair number of red herrings in the past, I can tell you these over-the-top risk statements are virtually pro forma.  The lawyers don't want any suits down the road about failure to disclose, so every risk up to and including getting kidnapped by evil trolls if you buy the offering are listed.

Via the Accounting Onion, I found an issues I have not seen well-reported.  Tom Selling argues that without some accounting shennanigans at its reorganization, GM's equity should be negative.   Reading between the lines, it does not appear that he is very confident that the SEC, which is a branch of GM's ownership group, will do much about it.