Posts tagged ‘bankruptcy’

The Madness of Shareholder Lawsuits

At least one investor (and likely soon many more) in Theranos is suing the company:

When Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that the company was shifting its focus, she said her team is lucky to have investors who believe in its mission. But there's at least one major investor who doesn't, and it has already sued the controversial blood-testing provider. According to The Wall Street Journal, Partner Fund Management (PFM) LP is accusing the startup of convincing it to pour $100 million into the startup by feeding it a "series of lies." The San Francisco-based hedge fund firm filed the lawsuit in Delaware today and sent out a letter to its own investors.

In the letter, the firm said:

"Through a series of lies, material misstatements, and omissions, the defendants (Theranos), engaged in securities fraud and other violations by fraudulently inducing PFM to invest and maintain its investment in the company."

At some level, shareholder lawsuits are utter madness.  Consider the case where all owners of a company are suing the company.  If they win, the amount they win from the company is offset by a drop in value of their ownership in the company.  At best this is a break-even proposition but when lawyers fees are included, this is a recipe for immense value destruction.

I am not really an insider on these things, but my guess is that the explanation for the madness comes by relaxing my assumption above that "all owners" are suing.   If only one owner is suing, then this becomes a potential mechanism for transferring value from other owners or investors.  There are of course real situations where a certain minority class of shareholders is screwed by the majority, but I don't think that is the case here.  In the case of Theranos, I assume the whole company is headed into a messy bankruptcy, and PFM is racing to the courthouse to be first in what is sure to become a messy litigation-fest.  They likely have one or both of these goals

  • Since they likely cannot sell their equity and cash out normally, given the uncertainty about the company's future,  they may be able to effectively cash out by getting other owners to pay them off in a settlement of this suit.
  • Since their equity may be worth zero soon, if they can win a lawsuit the payout becomes a much more senior form of indebtedness and might move them up towards the front of the line for any value that still exists in the company

Update:  From one of my readers at a CPA firm:  A key reason for shareholder suits is to trigger insurance coverage payouts for management and/or Board errors and omissions.  This in theory both increases the company’s assets and creates a senior claim by the plaintiffs to those particular assets.

Huh? Punishment for Taking Out A Loan You Couldn't Afford is... You Don't Have To Pay the Loan Back?

I really was not going to blog this week but this article exceeded by fury threshold, which is pretty hard to do nowadays.

The report, shared with MarketWatch, states that some of Puerto Rico’s debt may have been issued illegally, allowing the government to potentially declare the bonds invalid and courts to then decide that creditors’ claims are unenforceable. The scope of the audit report, issued by the island’s Public Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission, covers the two most recent full-faith-and-credit debt issues of the commonwealth: Puerto Rico’s 2014 $3.5 billion general-obligation bond offering and a $900 million issuance in 2015 of Tax Refund Anticipation Notes to a syndicate of banks led by J.P Morgan

So government officials break the law by taking out a loan they shouldn't have taken out, and the punishment is that they get to keep the money and not pay it back?  This is absolutely absurd.  That means that completely innocent third parties are essentially being fined $4.4 billion for the malfeasance of Puerto Rico's government officials.  Were the creditors truly innocent?  Well, the same report goes on to further criticize the government officials for not telling their creditors that what the government was asking for was illegal

Puerto Rico did not inform bondholders that its constitution forbids it from using debt to finance deficits. That, the commission’s report says suggests “substantive” noncompliance with the letter of the constitution

So in fact, incredibly, the creditors' very innocence is used as part of the proof that the debt was illegal, and thus that creditors should be expropriated.

I thought that this couldn't possibly be the law, except that the Supreme Court has already upheld the same outcome in other cases:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the Litchfield v. Ballou case and, more recently, in litigation related to Detroit’s bankruptcy that borrowing above a debt ceiling may allow the issuer to declare debt invalid and, therefore, unpayable. Detroit went to court to invalidate $1.45 billion in certificates of participation, debt issued by two shell companies called “service corporations.” The parties settled before the case went to trial, but, while refusing two initial proposed settlements, the judge stated that Detroit’s argument had “substantial merit” and that the suit would have had a “reasonable likelihood of success.”

This is they type of thing that occurs in banana republics.  No honest nation with a strong rule of law operates this way.  And what is to prevent other distressed government bodies with limited ethics (e.g. the State of Illinois) from carefully borrowing money in a way that is subtly illegal and then repudiate it a few years later?

Is Trump Smart Because He is Rich? Or Rich Because He Is Smart? Is He Even Rich?

I told my wife a number of times that my guess is that Trump won't release his taxes because they don't show nearly enough income to justify his ego.  Time and again I see he and his cohorts and even the media throwing around eye-popping revenue numbers for him.  Well, I can tell you from long, sad experience that merely having large revenue numbers won't get you anywhere - they have to actually be higher than expenses to be meaningful.  I was a part of several early Internet startups that rode tens of millions of revenue right into liquidation.

Here is my hypothesis of what makes Trump rich:

  1. He started with family money.  No shame in that, lot's of people have done productive things with the capital accumulated by prior generations of their family.  But in Texas we used to have  a saying -- the best way to make a million dollars is to start with $10 million.  Is Trump's fortune larger today than it would have been if, say, he had just shoved all of dad's money into stocks?
  2. He has the political clout to swing real estate deals average people cannot.  Real estate in New York and Atlantic City is entirely driven by crony capitalism, and Trump is a master.  Let's say I have a piece of land that is worth X.  It would be worth X+Y if I could build the building I want on it, but I can't get the permissions I need.  Trump can, buys it for X, and then makes Y profit from his political pull.  The example of his getting his cronies in the Atlantic City government to condemn a woman's home so he could pave it over for limo parking is just the ugliest of many, many such examples.
  3. He extracts rents from investors, even when investors lose money.  I don't know if there is an economic name for this, but there should be.  Trump's investors, particularly his bondholders, have frequently lost millions on his real estate and casino investments -- both in his many bankruptcies and his frequent debt restructurings, which he brags about on the campaign trail.  These investments are losing money and going bankrupt, so they can't be generating free cash flow.  Somehow Trump is saddling investors with the losses AND extracting income for himself personally.  Steven Job's lifestyle was paid for by people who voluntarily bought iphones and valued them enough to pay more for them than it cost to make them.  I hypothesize that Trump's lifestyle is paid for out of invested capital, and not out of profits.  Which of course leaves open the question of why investors continue to sign up for this treatment.  I understand why donors give to the Clinton Foundation despite the fact that the Foundation does relatively little actual charity work -- donors are looking for influence with the Clintons.   But why do Trump investors keep dumping in more money?  Could it be charisma?  Certainly Trump has an excess.
  4. Trump's best investments seem to be ones where his charisma comes into play -- his TV shows come to mind.  Beyond the TV shows, there is a long string of business failures, from steaks and schools to casinos.

Postscript:  To be fair, I will add that I have in the past been a fan of his hotel on the strip in Las Vegas.  The hotel provides a screaming good value (you can almost always get a huge discount off rack rate) for an exceptionally nice room in a good location -- and in a non-casino hotel to boot.  I used it for years as a low-cost location for manager meetings.  The staff there is great -- the only problem is one has to look past the tacky gold gilding on everything and the goofy Trump-branded swag in the gift shop.  I will add, though, apropos to this post, there is no way on God's green Earth that this hotel makes money, at least if it is paying all of its capital costs (it is possible there was a bankruptcy at one point where Trump said "you're fired" to the bondholders).  If you ever stay there, by the way, it has the best view of the strip in Vegas because it is right at a bend and can look straight down the street.  Ask for a high room on the south side.

Update:  LOL, looking at #3, I think we do already have a name for this phenomenon of extracting rents from investors even when the investments are losing money -- it is called a hedge fund.  Given that hedge funds generally do not consistently outperform the market and result in outsize compensation for their managers even when the fund loses money (pretty sure Chelsea Clinton's and her husband did not give back any of the management fees they pulled down despite their hedge fund tanking most of their investor's money).

Update #2:  Being a billionaire is no guarantee that one knows anything about even basic economics:  Nick Hanauer argues the way to prosperity is to impose a $28 minimum wage.

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.

Great Moments in US Energy Policy: In the 1970's, The US Government Mandated Coal Use For New Power Plants

What does government energy policy have in common with government food advice?  Every 30-40 years the Federal government reverses itself 180 degrees and declares all the stuff that they said was bad before is now good today.

Case in point:  Coal-fired electrical generation.  Coal is pretty much the bette noir of environmentalists today, so much so that Obama actually pledged to kill the coal industry when he was running for office.   The combination of new regulation combined with the rapid expansion of cheap natural gas supplies has done much to kill coal use (as illustrated by this bankruptcy today).

But many people may not realize that the rise of coal burning in power plants in the US was not just driven by economics -- it was mandated by government policy

Federal policies moved in coal's favor in the 1970s. With the Middle East oil crisis, policymakers began to adopt policies to try and shift the nation toward greater coal consumption, which was a domestic energy resource. The Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974 directed the Federal Energy Administration to prohibit the use of oil or natural gas by electric utilities that could use coal, and it authorized the FEA to require that new electric power plants be able to use coal. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 extended those powers for two years and authorized $750 million in loan guarantees for new underground low-sulfur mines. Further pro-coal mandates were passed in the late-1970s.

I was aware of the regulations at the time as I was working in an oil refinery in the early 80's and it affected us a couple of ways.  First, it killed demand for low-sulphur heavy fuel oil.  And second, it sidelined several co-generation projects that made a ton of sense (generating electricity and steam from wasted or low-value portions of the oil barrel) but ran afoul of these coal mandates.

Apparently, We can Only Reproduce in a Few States

Kevin Drum featured this chart on "reproductive rights" by state.

blog_reproductive_rights_state

Since I am pretty sure most states have an unfettered right to actually reproduce, I presume the issue at hand here is the right not to reproduce using certain tools such as abortion (and certainly this is confirmed when one digs into the criteria behind these rankings).

I would like to congratulate the Left on acknowledging that any right to reproduce must include the right not to reproduce.   In fact, since the scores here are driven entirely by the right not to reproduce, I would infer that Drum and the Left sees the right not to reproduce as absolutely critical to reproductive rights.

Which leads me to the following question:  Would the same folks agree that a right of association implies a right not to associate?  Because recent experience (e.g. with gay rights groups hounding bakers into bankruptcy because they would not make a wedding cake for a gay wedding) sure seems to imply the Left has a different attitude towards association rights.

The Victim Brag: It May Be Time to Devalue Internet Death Threats

Frequently people will use the existence of threats, including death threats, over the Internet as proof that their cause is more just because their opponents are violent and _________ (fill in the blank with racist, misogynist, etc.).  Most folks firmly believe that only their side is getting these death threats, since they only really talk to and read people on their side.  But as a libertarian that makes common cause with all kinds of groups, what I see is that EVERYONE that says something even mildly controversial gets Internet threats.  The gamergaters get threats and the anti-gamergaters get threats.  BLM gets threats and police defenders get threats.  Heck, I get threats, mostly on climate and immigration issues, and I am a nobody.  And here is the latest source of death threats:  Katherine Timpf dissing Star Wars

More than a month ago, I made some jokes about Star Wars on Red Eye, a satirical political comedy show that airs at 3 a.m., and it has resulted in me being verbally abused and told to die by a mob of enraged fans for the past four days now. ...Then, this week, one Star Wars super-super-super fan who calls himself “AlphaOmegaSin” made a ten-minute (!) video brutally ripping me apart.  The YouTube comments on his manifesto were even better. You know, stuff like:

justin 12 hours ago Maybe a SW nerd needs to sneak into her dark room, dressed like her bf, rape her, but she doesn’t know it’s rape because she thinks it’s her BF.

needmypunk 16 hours ago I hope she gets acid thrown in her pretty little face.

sdgaara2 1 day ago Wouldn’t it be great if she was beaten to death with “space nerd sticks”

etc. etc.   Now, I understand there are a few folks out there who have had to deal with scary and legitimate stalking episodes online.  But in the vast majority of cases, does anyone really treat these as serious threats?  Like actually get scared?  I know I don't.  I would suggest that most folks respond just like Ms. Timpf did -- they treat them as a badge of honor and of proof of the rightness of their cause and the bankruptcy of their intellectual opposition.  I have done the exact same thing.   We have a term called humble brag, e.g. "I was so stupid last night -- Johnny Depp came by my table to say hi and I didn't recognize him."  We need a term for this -- "victim brag", maybe?

I have come to the conclusion that there are a core of people on the Internet that are simply morons, and will react stupidly to about anything.  We should stop ascribing any significance to their showing up in an online discussion.  The fact they show up making their stupid threats has no more meaning than the fact that ants inevitably show up when you drop food on the ground.  You wouldn't write an article that "ants hate me because they swarmed all over the potato chip I dropped."  Let's treat Internet trolls just like we do these insects.

 

 

I Have This Argument All The Time With The US Forest Service

I operate recreation areas in the US Forest Service and from time to time get criticized that my profit adds cost to the management of the facilities, and that the government would clearly be better off with a non-profit running the parks since they don't take a profit.  What they miss is that non-profits historically do a terrible job at what I do.  They begin in a burst of enthusiasm but then taper off into disorder.    Think about any non-profit you have ever been a part of.  Could they consistently run a 24/7/365 service operation to high standards?

Don Boudreaux has a great quote today that touches on this very issue

from page 114 of the 5th edition (2015) of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics:

While capitalism has a visible cost – profit – that does not exist under socialism, socialism has an invisible cost – inefficiency – that gets weeded out by losses and bankruptcy under capitalism.  The fact that most goods are more widely affordable in a capitalist economy implies that profit is less costly than inefficiency.  Put differently, profit is a price paid for efficiency.

It is also the "price" paid for innovation.

Why Greek History Reminds Me of California and Illinois

From the WSJ, an article on how politicians who tried to point out the unsustainability of Greek finances years ago where not only ignored, but villified and marginalized.  Sort of like in places like California and Illinois.

In the past quarter century, Greece has had a handful of reformist politicians who foresaw the problems that are now threatening the nation with bankruptcy.

Their reform proposals were fought by their colleagues in parliament and savaged by the media and labor unions. They invariably found themselves sidelined....

Tassos Giannitsis is no stranger to this kind of war: His tenure as labor minister was more short lived, and the battles against him even more visceral. Mr. Giannitsis in 2001, again in the Pasok government led by Mr. Simitis, put forward a comprehensive proposal to reform the pension system.

Trade unions, opposition parties and Pasok itself unleashed menace on Mr. Giannitsis.

“Giannitsis was annihilated after his pension-reform proposals. There are few precedents for this kind of universal attack on a politician,” said Loukas Tsoukalis, a prominent economics professor here.

Mr. Giannitsis’s proposals, which would have reduced the pension levels Greeks receive and made the system overall more sustainable given the country’s demographic and labor-force trends, were never taken to parliament.

“From the fridge to the bin!” said the front page of newspaper To Vima on April 28, 2001, as the frozen pension-reform plan was scrapped for good.

“When I told my colleagues in the cabinet about the reforms I was proposing—which mind you were not the toughest available—the attitude I got was that I was spoiling the party,” Mr. Giannitsis said in an interview.

“They were, like, ‘everything is going great right now, why are you bothering us with a problem that may implode in a decade?’”

There are many other examples.

 

The Fatal Allure of the Sexy Business

The tech site Engadget directed me to this article on Visual FX and CGI as a "must-read".  What I found was one of the odder economics and business hypotheses I have encountered lately.

The article begins by relating that VFX and digital effects specialty houses all lose money, even when they are providing effects for wildly profitable movies (e.g. Avengers) and purports to explain why this should be.  The author believes that this is a result of Hollywood purposely criticizing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep returns in the VFX companies down (and thus increase the returns of film producers).

As the debate surrounding what visual effects are worth rages on, it is clear that the studios themselves have an interest in perpetuating the myth that VFX are the product of clinical assembly lines and the results are equally lifeless and mechanical. Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope that is bandied about to squeeze the one part of the Hollywood machine that has no union or organizational skill to push back. The right hand asserts they are something not worth paying top dollar for, while the left lines up an interminable roster of VFX-based box office juggernauts for the foreseeable future.

The author goes so far as to say that Avatar was denied the best picture Oscar specifically to support the anti-VFX sentiment and keep returns of VFX companies down (emphasis added).

In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time just 41 days after its release, raking in an incredible $2.7 billion by the end of its run. Weta Digital, the VFX studio that created the majority of the visual effects, along with Lightstorm Entertainment, invested years in developing the tools and talent necessary to create Cameron’s almost entirely computer generated vision, with the cost of making the film rumored to be upwards of $500 million. Cameron had promised to show the world what visual effects could do and he succeeded. The results were universally lauded as visually stunning and unparalleled.

Yet, rather famously, the film and Cameron were snubbed that year at the Academy Awards, both for Best Picture and Best Director. The blame was laid at the feet of the critical success of The Hurt Locker. However, awarding Avatar the Academy’s highest honor would have been acknowledging visual effects as not only lucrative, but high art as well, worthy of its astronomical price tag. And that was a bargaining chip Hollywood was unwilling to concede to an industry it continues to hold hostage with threats of outsourcing to unskilled laborers around the globe.

This hypothesis seems outlandish, and in fact the author never really provides any evidence whatsoever for her hypothesis.   At least equally likely is that Hollywood insiders are snobbish and conservative and reject new approaches to film-making in a way that the public does not.  Or it could be that Avatar wasn't a very good movie (go try to watch it again today, you will be surprised what a yawner it is).  So why are VFX companies really losing money on profitable films?   Let's take a step back, because there is a useful business lesson buried in here somewhere.  I think.

This discussion is a sub-set of an age-old business problem -- how do rents in a supply chain get divided up?   Think of the billion plus dollars the new Avengers movie will make.  Everyone in the supply chain for making that movie, from the actors to the caterers to the VFX houses to the distribution companies believe their contribution has immense value, and that they should be getting a solid cut of the profits.  But profits in a supply chain are not divided up based on some third party assessing value, they are divided up by negotiation.  And the results of that negotiation depend on a lot of factors -- the number of competitors, the uniqueness of the service, regulatory rules, etc.  The most visible example of this sort of negotiation we see frequently in the news is in sports, where players and team owners are explicitly negotiating the division of the end revenue pie between themselves.

If we return to the article, the author actually gives us a hint of the true dynamic that is likely bringing down VFX profits.

The international subsidies-driven business model under which VFX companies operate has been well documented. In pursuit of tax rebates offered by various governments to produce films in their jurisdiction, studios insist that VFX companies open branches in these locations or reduce their bids by the amount of the subsidy in question. Even as studios, directors, and audiences demand the latest in cutting edge technology, VFX houses must underbid one another to get the work and many have been shuttered due to operational losses in the wake of explosive blockbuster budgets. The cost of research and development, shrinking schedules, and the unlimited changes that are the building blocks of every tentpole film, are shouldered entirely by VFX houses.

This is the best clue we get to the real problem.  Here is what I infer from this paragraph:

  1. This is a high fixed cost industry.  There are enormous up-front investments in research into new techniques and large investments in the latest technology, which presumably must be constantly refreshed because it has a short half-life before it is out of date.  The situation is worsened by government policy, which provides incentives for VFX companies to build extra capacity in multiple countries, losing economy of scale benefits from large concentrated production facilities.    One would presume from this that these companies' marginal cost of output, say 15 seconds of finished effects, is way way below their total costs.
  2. There is rivalry among VFX companies that seem to have excess capacity, such that bidding for work is very aggressive.  In such situations (think American railroads in the late 19th century) competitors lower prices down to marginal cost to keep their capacity and their trained people working.  Over time, of course, this leads to numerous bankruptices

I will add a third point which the author fails to cover.  To do so I will return to one of my favorite things I learned at Harvard Business School (HBS).  At HBS, in the first two days of strategy class, we studied two very different business cases.  The first was of a water meter manufacturer, a dead boring predictable unsexy business.  The second was a semiconductor company, which was hip and cool and really sexy.  It turned out that the water meter company coined money.  The semiconductor business was in and out of bankruptcy.

Why?  Well the water meter company had limited investment (made the same meters the same way for decades) and made most of its money off the replacement market, where it had no competitors since users pretty much had to replace with the same meter.  The semiconductor business had numerous shifting competitors and was constantly trying to scrape up enough investment money to keep up with shifting technology.  But there was one more difference.  By being sexy, tons of people wanted to be in the semiconductor business. They got non-monetary benefits from being in it (ie it was cool and interesting).  When there is an industry where lots of people are getting into the business for reasons other than making money, look out!  The profits are probably going to be terrible.   This is why most restaurants fail.  The business-for-sale listings are awash in brew pubs.   The aviation industry was like this for years, and I would argue this also suppresses rents in farming.

I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet that the VFX industry attracts a lot of people because it is sexy.  Yes, like a lot of programming, the actual work is detailed and dull.  But if the coding is detailed and dull, would you rather be doing it for Exxon's new back-office system or to put Ironman on the big screen (and have your name deep into the film credits, seen by the dozen or so people who hang around waiting for the Marvel Easter egg at the end)?

This is why I think a conspiracy theory to believe Hollywood is dissing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep VFX company rents down is silly.  It is totally unnecessary to explain the bad rents.  Had you told me it was a high investment business with huge fixed costs and much lower marginal costs and alot of rivalry driven by participants who piled into the business because it was sexy, I would have told you to stop right there and I could have immediately predicted poor returns and bankruptcies.

So what can VFX companies do?  I have no idea.  The first idea I would offer them is branding.  If you are buried deep in the supply chain and want to increase your bargaining power, one way to do it is to develop a brand with the end consumer.   If consumers suddenly latch on to, say, the CoyoteFX brand as being innovative or better in some way, such that they might be more likely to go to a movie with CoyoteFX sequences, then CoyoteFX now has a LOT more power in negotiations with producers.  Dolby Sound is a great example -- you probably don't even know what it is but movies used to advertise they had it.  Certain camera technologies like Panavision are another, where movies actually sold themselves in part on the features of one member of their supply chain.  As a digital house, Pixar effectively did this -- so well in fact its brand actually was bigger than Disney's (its distributor) for a while, and Disney was forced to buy them.  This does not happen just in movies.  I just bought a car that advertised it had a premium Bose sound system.  The car maker doesn't advertise who made, say, the fuel tanks, so my guess is that Bose, via branding, gets a better cut of the supply chain than does the fuel tank maker.

New Business Opportunity: Lolo's Eagle and Waffles Next to Large Solar Plants

From ReWire via Anthony Watts

A test of a solar power tower project in Nevada resulted in injuries to over one hundred birds, the federal government is reporting, though the project's owners say they've fixed the problem.

On January 14, during tests of the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada, biologists observed 130 birds entering an area of concentrated solar energy and catching fire. That's according to Rudy Evenson, Deputy Chief of Communications for Nevada Bureau of Land Management in Reno.

Evenson suggested that the birds may have been attracted by a glow the concentrated solar energy created above the project's sole tower.

...

According to Evenson, workers testing the plant moved approximately a third of the project's ten thousand mirrors to focus sunlight on a point 1,200 feet above the ground, approximately twice the height of the power tower at Crescent Dunes.

The test started at 9:00 a.m. on January 14, Evenson told Rewire. By 10:30, biologists working on the site began noticing what have become known as "streamers," trails of smoke and water vapor caused by birds entering the field of concentrated solar energy (a.k.a. "solar flux") and igniting.

By the time the test ended for the day at 3:00 p.m., biologists had counted 130 such "streamers." A subsequent test on January 15 reduced the number of mirrors aimed at the focal point above the tower, said Evenson, and that apparently ended the injuries to birds.

Oops.  It is amazing how solar gets a pass on things that other industries would be hounded into bankruptcy over.  ExxonMobil was fined by the Feds for 85 bird deaths at the company's natural gas facilities.  These deaths were spread out over 5 states and over 5 years.  This solar plant killed at least 130 birds in one location in 6 hours.  ExxonMobil was fined $7000 per dead bird.  Anyone want to bet on what the solar guys will be fined?  Vegas has set the over-under at zero.

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

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

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

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

From My Vantage Point, Social Security Disability is Totally Corrupt

Nicole Kaeding of Cato has an article on the SSD system heading for bankruptcy.  I can tell you from my experience that a week does not go by when someone doesn't come to me looking for work and saying something like, "I am on full disability but I am fully able to work.  However, I can't take any pay because that would screw up my disability payments.  Can I work for you and have you write my payroll checks to my wife?"

The easy answer to that is "no".  With a backlog of 25000+ people who want a job, why am I going to help them cheat, particularly when it would be me taking the legal risk?

I once had an ex-employee who was applying for a SS disability.  You may not understand that for many folks, getting a Social Security lifetime disability is like hitting the lottery.  This employee knew that if asked, we would have to tell the SS investigator that she seemed fully able to do her job and never demonstrated any reduced functionality.  So to pre-empt that, she and her attorney sent me a letter saying that if we in any way testified to her being able to work and prevented her from getting her disability payment, she would tie me up in court for years, suing me for sexual harassment, discrimination, and everything else she could think of.

So In The End, The VA Was Rewarded, Not Punished

Remember the whole VA thing?  It has mostly been forgotten, though we will all remember it again, or more accurately get to experience it ourselves, once the Democrats manage to get single payer passed.

People talk about government employees being motivated by "public service" but in fact very few government agencies have any tangible performance metrics linked to public service, and when they do (as in the case of the VA wait times) they just game them.   At the end of the day, nothing enforces fidelity to the public good like competition and consumer choice, two things no government agency allows.

I will admit that government employees in agencies may have some interest in public welfare, but in the hierarchy of needs, the following three things dominate above any concerns for the public:

  • Keeping the agency in existence
  • Maintaining employment levels, and if that is achieved, increasing employment levels
  • Getting more budget

But look at the VA response in this context:

  • The agency remains in existence and most proposals to privatize certain parts were beaten back
  • No one was fired and employment levels remain the same
  • The agency was rewarded with a big bump in its budget

The VA won!  Whereas a private company with that kind of negative publicity about how customers were treated would have as a minimum seen a huge revenue and market share loss, and might have faced bankruptcy, the VA was given more money.

Murry Rothbard via Bryan Caplan:

On the free market, in short, the consumer is king, and any business firm that wants to make profits and avoid losses tries its best to serve the consumer as efficiently and at as low a cost as possible. In a government operation, in contrast, everything changes. Inherent in all government operation is a grave and fatal split between service and payment, between the providing of a service and the payment for receiving it. The government bureau does not get its income as does the private firm, from serving the consumer well or from consumer purchases of its products exceeding its costs of operation. No, the government bureau acquires its income from mulcting the long-suffering taxpayer. Its operations therefore become inefficient, and costs zoom, since government bureaus need not worry about losses or bankruptcy; they can make up their losses by additional extractions from the public till. Furthermore, the consumer, instead of being courted and wooed for his favor, becomes a mere annoyance to the government someone who is "wasting" the government's scarce resources. In government operations, the consumer is treated like an unwelcome intruder, an interference in the quiet enjoyment by the bureaucrat of his steady income.

Legislators Pressuring Insurance Companies to Extend The Policies That Legislators Forced to Be Cancelled

Just to prove that there is no end to the arrogance and moral bankruptcy of politicians:

Federal lawmakers and state officials are stepping up pressure on insurers to allow consumers whose coverage has been canceled in response to the health overhaul to keep their policies beyond the end of the year.

On Tuesday, one of the largest regional health plans in the nation, Blue Shield of California, said it would relax its stance on terminated policies for about 115,000 people after state regulators demanded it do so. Customers now will have until March to decide which plan to choose for 2014, a three-month extension. Because the newer plans generally cost more, the extension could save residents as much as $28.6 million on premiums, said Dave Jones, California's insurance commissioner....

The move by Mr. Jones, an elected Democrat, comes as some other Democrats are seeking ways to allow individual policyholders to keep their current health plans and to defuse the issue of canceled plans, which has become a headache for supporters of the law.

Cancellation letters are expected to be sent to as many as 10 million Americans who buy coverage directly from insurers, rather than through an employer or government program. While these individuals would have to buy new policies, regulators and lawmakers say the extensions would give them more time to shop for an affordable new plan—particularly because continuing problems with insurance exchange websites are preventing many of these consumers from finding new coverage.

This is incredible.  Senator Mary Landrieu, for example, has now introduced a bill that would reverse some of the rules that are forcing insurers to cancel policies, essentially the same bill she voted against 3-1/2 years ago.

More Totally Bogus Obama Excuses

Here is his new excuse for his "you can keep your health insurance" promise being broken.  It is -- wait for it, you will never guess -- insurance companies' fault.

"One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the under-insured," Obama said. "And there are a number of Americans, fewer than 5 percent of Americans, who've got cut-rate plans that don't offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident.

"Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received or used minor pre-existing conditions to jack up your premiums or bill you into bankruptcy."

This is absurd.   Kaiser Permanente cut zillions of policies.  Are they a bad apple?  My policy was cut by Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Arizona.  Are they some fly-by-night cut-rate insurer?

Money for Nothing, Detroit Edition

A huge portion of Detroit's operating costs go to police and fire.  If you include retiree health care and pensions, way over half of Detroit's budget goes to police and fire**.  That is an enormous increase since 1960.

detroit-bankruptcy-spending

So one might expect the schools to suck and the streetlights to be broken (which they do and are), but you would expect great freaking fire and police coverage.  But you would be wrong.  Detroit has one of the highest crime rates in the country.  This is what you get for your money there:

If you're a Detroiter who needs a police officer, it will take 58 minutes to get help -- more than five times what it takes elsewhere in the United States...

Here are some of the other problems outlined in the bankruptcy filing:

-- Response times for Emergency Medical Services and the Detroit Fire Department average 15 minutes, which is more than double the 7-minute averages seen in other cities.

-- The police department closes only 8.7% of its criminal cases, which the filing blames on the department's "lack of a case management system, lack of accountability for detectives, unfavorable work rules imposed by collective bargaining agreements and a high attrition rate in the investigative operations unit."

-- The city's violent crime rate is five times the national average, and the highest of any city with a population exceeding 200,000.

 

** This is in large part due to the power of their unions, and their ability in elections to translate hero worship for police and fire fighters into political power that will allow them to get anything they want.  As a politician, try to stand up for sanity and you will be deluged by union ads arguing that you don't respect our men who are risking their lives for you, etc. etc.

Absolute Fecklessness

I am still reading through the Detroit Free Press report on Detroit's financial history and it is really amazing.  All the stuff you expect to see is there -- over taxation, over regulation, crony gifts, huge government pay and pensions, etc.  But this was new to me, and even worse than I expected:

Gifting a billion in bonuses: Pension officials handed out about $1 billion in bonuses from the city’s two pension funds to retirees and active city workers from 1985 to 2008. That money — mostly in the form of so-called 13th checks — could have shored up the funds and possibly prevented the city from filing for bankruptcy. If that money had been saved, it would have been worth more than $1.9 billion today to the city and pension funds, by one expert’s estimate.

Outright gifts of taxpayer money to government workers, even beyond their already rich salary and pensions!  Folks on the Left from Paul Krugman to Obama are trying to portray Detroit as the innocent victim of economic and demographic exogenous forces beyond their control.  Don't let them.  The exodus from Detroit and the destruction of its economy were not random events the city had to endure, but self-inflicted wounds.

The Government, Nudging, and Delay Discounting

The theory behind the idea that government should nudge (or coerce, as the case may be) us into "better" behavior is based on the idea that many people are bad at delay discounting.  In other words, we tend to apply huge discount rates to pain in the future, such that we will sometimes make decisions to avoid small costs today even if that causes us to incur huge costs in the future (e.g. we refuse to walk away from the McDonalds french fries today which may cause us to die of obesity later).

There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that many decisions that may appear to be based on bad delay discounting are actually based on logical and rational premises that outsiders are unaware of.

But the most obvious problem is that people in government, who will supposedly save us from this poor decision-making, are human beings as well and should therefore have the exact same cognitive weaknesses.  No one has ever managed to suggest a plausible theory as to how our methods of choosing politicians or staffing government jobs somehow selects for people who have better decision-making abilities.

Here is a great example.  These are the people who think YOU have a problem with delay discounting:

When all the numbers are crunched, one fact is crystal clear: Yes, a disaster was looming for Detroit. But there were ample opportunities when decisive action by city leaders might have fended off bankruptcy.

If Mayors Jerome Cavanagh and Roman Gribbs had cut the workforce in the 1960s and early 1970s as the population and property values dropped. If Mayor Dennis Archer hadn’t added more than 1,100 employees in the 1990s when the city was flush but still losing population. If Kilpatrick had shown more fiscal discipline and not launched a borrowing spree to cover operating expenses that continued into Mayor Dave Bing’s tenure. Over five decades, there were many ‘if only’ moments.

“Detroit got into a trap of doing a lot of borrowing for cash flow purposes and then trying to figure out how to push costs (out) as much as possible,” said Bettie Buss, a former city budget staffer who spent years analyzing city finances for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “That was the whole culture — how do we get what we want and not pay for it until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?”

Ultimately, Detroit ended up with $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and unfunded pension and health care liabilities. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency manager, and Orr filed for Chapter 9 on July 18.

Corporate Welfare and the Thin Edge of the Wedge

The other day, the City of Glendale approved a deal which has the city subsidizing (more in a second) the buyers of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team to get them to actually stay in town rather than move to Seattle.  The deal is arguably better than deals it was offered in the past (it gets shares of parking and naming rights it did not have before) and may even be a rational deal given where it is today.

But that is the catch -- the phrase "where it is today."  At some level it is insane for a city of 250,000 people to pony up even more subsidies for a team that has the lowest attendance in the league.  The problem is that the city built the stadium in the first place -- a $300 million dollar palace for a metropolitan area that already had a major arena downtown and which was built (no disrespect to Glendale) on the ass-end of the metropolitan area, a good 90 minute round trip drive for the affluent Scottsdale and east-side corporate patrons who typically keep a sports franchise afloat.

Building this stadium was a terrible decision, and I and many others said so at the time.  But once the decision was made, it drove all the future decisions.  Because the hockey team is the only viable tenant to pay the rent in that building, the city rationally will kick back subsidies to the team to keep it in place to protect its rent payments and sales taxes from businesses supported by the team and the arena.  The original decision to build that stadium has handcuffed Glendale's fiscal situation for decades to come.  One can only hope that cities considering major stadium projects will look to Glendale's and Miami's recent experiences and think twice about building taxpayer funded facilities for billionaires.

The deal the other night to keep the team went down in the only way it could have.  As I had written, the NHL was insisting on selling the team for its costs when it took it over in bankruptcy, which were about $200 million, which was well north of the $100 million the team was worth, creating a bid-ask gap.  Several years ago, the city tried to just hand $100 million to a buyer to make up the gap, but failed when challenged by the Goldwater Institute.  The only real avenue it had left was to pass the value over to the buyers in the form of an above-market-rate stadium management contract.

And that is what happened, and I guess I will say at least it was all moderately transparent.  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.

This May Finally End NHL Hockey in Arizona

Let me bring you up to speed:  The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, having taken them over in bankruptcy.  It needs to sell the team and is demanding $200 million for the team, having promised the league owners it would not accept anything less (so they will not take a loss in the investment).  The team is worth, however, something like $100 million, at least if it stays in Arizona.

The team plays in a stadium built by the relatively small city (250,000 people) of Glendale, which put something like $300 million of taxpayer money into the stadium and has provided operating subsidies to the team the last several years that probably total another $100 million, at least.  The city has a bad hand, but keeps doubling down on its bet to try to retain the team.

The problem, of course, is the $100 million difference in the bid-ask for the team.  Glendale first tried to fix this by agreeing in a previous deal couple of years ago to basically give the buyer $100 million of taxpayer money to bridge the bid-ask gap.  The Goldwater Institute sued, saying that the Arizona Constitution pretty clearly states the government can't directly subsidize commercial interests.  They prevailed (before it ever reached court) and the deal died.

The only way left for Glendale to make the deal happen was to give a buyer $100 million in taxpayer money but to do so in a more disguised manner.  The one option they had was in the stadium management contract.  If they agreed, say, to pay the buyer $10 million a year over market rates for the stadium management contract, over 15 years that has about a $100 million present value.  They can get away with this because there is no objective valuation of what a management contract would cost on the open market.

But their ability to do this is, thankfully, about to die.  Under intense pressure, and in a fit of good government that I am sure Glendale regrets, it actually went out and sought arms-length contracts for stadium management from third parties.  It is enormously unlikely the city will accept any of these bids, because it needs the stadium contract as a carrot for someone to buy the Coyotes at the NHL's inflated price.  Besides, I bid on large contracts a lot and I have often been presented with bid packages from an entity that had no intention of awarding, but wanted me to go through all the bid effort just to establish an internal price benchmark or to keep their preferred provider honest.  I can smell these from a mile away now.

The problem Glendale will have, though, is that when these 3rd party bids become public (which they inevitably will), it will then be impossible to hide the implicit subsidy in the management contract.  Presumably, taxpayers then will push back on any future deals using this dodge, though Glendale citizens seem pretty supine so one never knows.  Also, the city can also tweak the responsibilities of the stadium contract, thereby allowing them to claim that comparisons against these past bids are apples and oranges (though this will be hard as I expect arms-length bids around $5 million a year vs. $15 million they propose to pay the team buyer).

PS-  It is hilarious to see worried comments from Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) about how hard on Glendale it will be if the Coyotes leave town.  Merely lowering his asking price to something less than 2x the market price would solve the problem in an instant.

The Missing Warning Label

Zero Hedge pointed out this ad for California state bonds:

20130404_cali

 

In light of the recent Stockton bankruptcy, this should carry a warning label:  "California reserves the right to repudiate up to 100% of these bonds whenever payment of the interest or principle interferes with paying state employees the maximum possible pension benefits.  These bonds are subordinated to any promises made at any time by any politician to state employees unions, past, present, or future."

Fisker Considering Bankruptcy

What a surprise -- apparently forced to make their case to private investors now rather than just DOE bureaucrats whose main criteria is "did this company support President Obama in the last election", Fisker is having trouble raising money and may declare bankruptcy.

Totally Depressing

I found this article on foreclosed homeowners vindictively trashing houses now owned by the bank to be really depressing.  An example quote:

Myra Beams, a realtor in Tamarac, Fla., said half of her foreclosed properties, regardless of the price range, have been vandalized by the former owners. "I think the former owners are angry, and for some reason, they think they're entitled to destroy properties," said Beams. "I guess they're angry at the banks for giving them the mortgage."

There is a lot more like that.  A couple of quick thoughts

  • The sense of entitlement here is stunning.  It is these homeowners, not the bank, that failed to fulfill their end of the bargain.  Who is the guilty party here, anyway?
  • These folks are lucky to live in the US -- we have the most lenient home mortgage system in the world.  Very, very few other countries in the world have no-recourse mortgages where one can walk away only with a ding on their credit record, without even a personal bankruptcy.  Almost anyplace else, they would be facing years of garnishments for whatever losses on the loan the bank had after they sold the home.
  • I always thought the critique of lower income people "trashing" housing projects in the 70s and 80s had a vaguely racial tone to them, as if this were somehow a proof of African-Americans being shiftless and irresponsible.   But here we have white middle class people actively trashing their homes.  Proving once again that being an inconsiderate jerk is truly a multi-racial, multi-ethinic behavior.

Update on Steve Rattner, Friend of Investors (as long as they are rich or voted for Obama)

Last week, I noted a piece by Steve Rattner who was horrified that individual investors, empowered by companies like Kickstarter, might one day be able to invest in startups without paying a fee to Goldman Sachs.

I noted that Mr. Rattner's concern for investors seemed to be coming rather late, given that "he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters."

A Detroit News piece by my Princeton classmate Henry Payne has more:

The administration has treated obstacles to its agenda with ruthless tactics. In April 2009, that agenda was to hand an outsized, 55 percent majority interest of embattled Chrysler to the United Auto Workers in a government-orchestrated bankruptcy. But by law secured creditors are first in line in bankruptcy, and bondholders — representing their working-class pension clients — refused to accept Obama's unfair deal for a measly 29 cents on their investment dollar.

Send in the muscle.

"One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight," said Tom Lauria, lawyer for Perella Weinberg investment firm, on Frank Beckmann's Detroit radio program. Lauria later said the brass knuckles belonged to White House Auto Task Force leader Steve Rattner. Lauria's account was disturbing, too, in revealing the confidence that the White House has in its press allies to aid Obama's agenda. Sure enough, Washington reporters quickly attacked the messenger. "(Lauria's) charge is completely untrue," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told ABC News' Jake Tapper, "and there's obviously no evidence to suggest that this happened in any way." Actually, there was plenty of evidence. Jim Carney of Business Insider corroborated Lauria's account, reporting that "sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well." The White House escalated the threats when Obama himself singled out creditors for obstruction, accusing them of being "speculators" preying on an American auto icon — bullying words from a man with the IRS and SEC at his disposal.

"The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler, say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler," continued the Insider. "One person described the administration as the most shocking 'end justifies the means' group they have ever encountered."...

"The president's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him," wrote Cliff Asness, a managing partner at AQR Capital Management. "Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power."