Posts tagged ‘investments’

Great Moments in Crazy Stock Bubbles -- Are These Investors On Drugs?

As of this moment, Canadian tulip bulb marijuana company Tilray is trading at $146 a share for a total market capitalization of $11.2 Billion.  This is a company that had $10 million in revenues last quarter.   It is trading at a 420x multiple of last year's revenues.  It is up 20% today alone.  The race to own Canadian marijuana stocks in advance of the January 1, 2019 legalization in Canada is simply insane.  I would have attributed this to millenial dumb money leaving Tesla and looking for a new home, but a couple of weeks ago, American alcoholic beverage company Constellation Brands paid $4 billion for just a piece of another Canadian weed company.

Investments at this sort of valuation before the market even is opened are speculative in the extreme.  People will use the argument that "wouldn't you have wanted to be in on the ground floor of Coke or Pepsi or Phillip Morris or Anheuser Bush?"  A few responses:

  1. Buying in at an $11 billion valuation is not really the "ground floor".  $11.2 billion is a higher market cap than Whirlpool or Hyatt or Alcoa.
  2. The beer and cigarette and soft drink industries all started with hundreds, even thousands of competitors.  When RJ Reynolds started his tobacco company, there were 15 other tobacco companies in Winston-Salem alone.  Without your current hindsight, you would have been hard-pressed in the early stages of those industries to pick the winner.
  3. This goes without saying, but we have no idea of the future size of the marijuana market, and even without the risk of trying to predict consumer behavior it is really hard to predict regulatory behavior
  4. Usually only one part of the value chain of a new industry really makes the profits.  We have no idea where that will be in the marijuana business.  In beer and tobacco, the big profits are not with the growers of tobacco and hops, for example.
  5. Early pioneers in an industry are often not the survivors.  Your computer today, is it a Tandy?  Kaypro?  Commodore?  IBM and Compaq don't even make PC's any more.  Apple does but only because it reinvented itself as a phone maker.  And how about those cell phone pioneers?  Is your phone a Nokia?  Motorolla?  Blackberry?

December $145 put options on Tilray are trading around $72 dollars, which essentially means that there are folks betting that the company will lose half its value in the next 90 days.  I can't remember ever seeing anything that extreme.

Update:  Well, a day later it is at over $200 and a $20 billion valuation.  Incredible.

 

Adding Solar to Our House -- Here Is Why

UPDATE:  This article has been heavily edited.  It turns out that solar installations without extensive battery systems do NOT act as a backup to grid outages.  By utility rules, the solar system has to shut itself down when the grid shuts down.  I should have done better research, but frankly I could not believe that the system shuts down EXACTLY when you most need it.  For me this revelation (which came from several readers, thanks!!) was a bit like finding out that your flashlight has software to shut down when it is dark outside. 

Our house has always been a good candidate for solar.  It has a large flat roof, good sightlines to the south, and we live in just about the best solar location in the country (Phoenix).  The problem has been two-fold:

  • Even with large tax rebates and other subsidies (e.g. ability to sell power into the grid at retail rather than wholesale rates), the payback periods are long.
  • Given that we are working in 10+ year paybacks, it has never been clear to me that most panels have the life needed.  All solar panels degrade with time and sometimes fail and I am not sure most economics include those factors.

What finally changed our minds was a question my wife asked me a few months back.  She would really be distressed at losing the A/C during a Phoenix summer, and asked if we should get a backup generator.  I told her such generators were large and expensive, but that if we really wanted some grid backup in Phoenix, solar seems to make sense.  Sure, it only backs up in the day, but that is when we really need it here.  The backup aspect was the cherry on top of the economics that put us over the top.

We knew we did not want some sort of leasing or pay-for-power arrangement that would encumber our home if we ever had to sell it so that meant we could shop for about any sort of panel we wanted.  In shopping for things nowadays, there is seldom consensus on the best, but right now there seems to be a near consensus in solar panels.  The SunPower panels have the best efficiency, the lowest efficiency reduction from high temperatures, the least efficiency drop off with time, and the longest warranty.  You pay for all that of course and they are pricey, but I decided to go with the pricier panels where I could be more sure of the economics in the out years.  We have made other investments in our home that have essentially represented a decision to stay for the long-term, so we invested for the long-term here.  I will say that it is possible we could have gotten better economics with another panel that was cheaper, even considering a shorter life, but I did not do the math for every panel.***  The panels we are buying are a huge step ahead of the old ones, as they have built -in inverters in each panel and so they produce AC directly.  This greatly reduces the wiring and installation costs.

Interestingly, the efficiency did not buy us much (at least today) because our total installation was limited by our service panel limits, which total to 400 amps.  This means that the efficiency really only saved us roof space which we had more than enough of.  However, while I chose not to do a battery system this time around (too expensive and too many safety questions), I may do one in the future so I wanted space for more panels to charge a future battery system.

The total payback comes to just about 10 years for our system.  At historic cost of capital numbers this probably does not pencil out but today with ZIRP it makes sense, especially with the extra benefit of some immunity from outages.  Even to get to these numbers you folks had to chip in to help my economics, in the form of the 30% tax rebate you are giving me and the above-wholesale price you are paying me for power I put into the grid.  This payback is mainly from getting rid of a LOT of our on-peak power usage, which costs us way more per KwH than off-peak.  A second project to add more solar charging batteries for evening use will have more challenging economics and will likely have to be justified purely on grid independence.  On the other hand, your economics in another location may be better, since our off-peak power costs of around 10-12 cents is pretty cheap.  On the gripping hand, you may not have as good of a solar insolation factor where you live.  My summary is that if you live in certain parts of SoCal with high electricity rates, this is a no brainer; if you live where I do it is marginal but works if you value some grid independence; and most everywhere else it is a real stretch and maybe closer to a rich man's toy than a sensible investment**.  However, those of you who have had good economics doing this elsewhere are welcome to comment below.

I will give more reports in the future as we go through this.

**  I would argue that experience from some place like SolarCity does not necessarily count as they never have and (as part of Tesla) likely never will make money, so there is an added subsidy in the equation there from well-meaning but naive stockholders.

*** It is hard also to do the full installation math on every panel as most installers have a limited range they work with and we only had the energy and time to engage a few installers for quotes.

 

I Know Congress Hates To Challenge A President of Its Own Party, But...

...Congress simply has to pare back the tariff authority it has delegated the President.  It is simply insane that Trump can just unilaterally impose 20% tariffs on foreign automobiles, a $200 billion new tax on US consumers.

It is appalling to see Trump following the usual blue model of economic regulation, imposing one intervention after another, each meant to fix the unintended consequences of the last intervention.  Steel tariffs increased costs to domestic auto makers, so Trump proposes tariffs on foreign autos.  When tariffs result (inevitably) in counter-tariffs on US agricultural exports, Trump proposes more agricultural subsidies.   People (not me) lament gridlock in government and want more fluid lawmaking -- well here it is.  And it sucks.  It is mindless and reactive and emotional and totally ignorant of economics.

These tariffs, when combined with earlier actions, will result in tax increases on consumers that swamp the tax cuts Trump and the Republicans were so proud of last year.

I tend to be a pessimist so I have probably accurately called 5 or the last 2 recessions, but i have started to shift my investments around to get ready for a slowing economy and a market correction.

Update (source)

While both careful not to specifically cite the politically unwise 'tariffs', Boeing, GM, and Fiat Chrysler stocks are plunging in the pre-market after trade war-related impacts caused missed earnings or lowered outlooks.

General Motors Co. cut its forecast for profit this year as surging prices for steel and aluminum combine with swings in South American currencies to burden the largest U.S. automaker. Specifically, Bloomberg reports that raw material costs probably will be a $1 billion headwind to GM’s profit this year - roughly double its previous expectation - while the Argentine peso and Brazilian real are likely to drag on results through the remainder of 2018.

US Trade Deficit: Foreigners Are Consuming US Goods, But Consuming Them in the US (So They Don't "Count" As An Export)

Via Don Boudreaux:

Greg Ip writes that “The U.S. runs a trade deficit because it consumes more than it produces while its trading partners, collectively, do the opposite” (“How the Tax Cut President Trump Loves Will Deepen Trade Deficits He Hates,” April 19).

Here is how I like to explain why this is wrong.  The trade deficit exists in large part because foreigners are more likely to consume the American-made goods and services they buy right here in the US, rather than take them back to their home country, while US consumers tend to bring foreign goods back to America to consume them.  Let me unpack this.

First, over any reasonable length of time, payments between countries are going to balance.  If this were not true, there would be some mattress in China that has trillions of dollar bills stuffed in it, and no reasonable person nowadays just lets money sit around lying fallow.  There are some payments between countries for each others' goods.   And there are some payments for each others' services.   And there are some payments for various investments.  All these ultimately balance, which makes fixating on just one part of this circular flow, the payments for physical goods, sort of insane.  If we have a trade "deficit" in physical goods, then we must have a trade surplus in services (which we do) and in investments (which we do) to balance things out.

But what do we mean by an investment surplus?  It means that, for example, folks from China are spending more money in the US for things like real estate and buildings and equipment -- either directly or through purchases of American equity and debt securities -- than US citizens are buying in China.  But note that another name for investment is just stuff that foreigners buy in this country that stays in this country and they don't take back home.  If a Chinese citizen buys a house in Los Angeles (something that apparently happens quite a bit), that is just as much "consumption" as when I buy a TV made in China.  But unlike my TV purchase (which counts as an import), because of the arbitrary way trade statistics are calculated, selling a Chinese citizen a house in LA does not count as an export because they keep and use the house here.  Let's say one Chinese person sells 10,000 TV's to Americans, and then uses the proceeds to build a multi-million dollar house in Hawaii.  This would show up as a huge trade deficit, but there is no asymmetry of consumption or production -- Chinese and American citizens involved in this example are producing and consuming the same amounts.  The same is true when the Chinese build a manufacturing plant here.  Or when then invest capital in a company like Tesla and it builds a manufacturing plant here.

Our bizarre fixation on the trade deficit number would imply that, if trade deficits are inherently bad, then we would be better off if the Chinese person who bought the house in LA dismantled it and then shipped the material back to China.  Then it would show up as an export.  Same with the factory -- if we fixated on reducing the trade deficit then we should prefer that the Chinese buy the equipment for their factory here but have it all shipped home and built in China rather than built here.   Is this really what you want?

I am willing to concede one exception -- when Chinese use trade proceeds to buy US government debt securities.   This is where my lack of formal economics training may lead me astray, but I would say that the US government is the one major American institution that is able to consume more than it produces.  Specifically, by running enormous deficits it is able to -- year in and year out -- allow people to consume more than they produce.  Trade proceeds from foreigners that buy this debt in some sense help subsidize this.

However, I don't think one can blame trade for this situation.  Government deficits are enabled by feckless politicians who pander to the electorate in order to be re-elected, a dynamic that has little to do with trade.  I suppose one could argue that by increasing the demand for government securities, foreigners are reducing the cost of debt and thus perhaps enabling more spending, though I am not sure politicians are at all price sensitive to interest rates when they run up debt -- as a minimum their demand curve is really, really steep.   There is a relation between government borrowing and trade but the relationship is reversed -- Increased borrowing will tend, all things being equal, to increase the value of the dollar which will in turn make imports cheaper and exports more expensive, perhaps increasing the trade deficit.

The Number One Reason the Ivy League Schools Are Broken

Ivy League schools are broken, at least to the extent they are true to their word that they are trying to serve mankind and not simply their own prestige.  Consider this from the WSJ:

Harvard hit a new low this year—in terms of its acceptance rate.

The university admitted 4.6% of applicants, or 1,962 students for the class set to begin this fall. Last year, it admitted 5.2% of applicants.

The eight campuses making up the Ivy League notified applicants on Wednesday evening about who will make up their first-year undergraduate class come fall. Seven of the eight posted record-high application numbers, while Dartmouth had its highest number in five years; seven recorded their lowest-ever acceptance rates, as Yale tied with its prior record.

Many of the applicants looked perfect on paper. At Princeton, more than 14,200 of the 35,370 applicants had a 4.0 grade point average. Brown boasted that 96% of its admitted students are in the top 10% of their high school classes, while at Dartmouth that rate hit 97%.

Yale admissions officers were “impressed and humbled” by the volume of qualified candidates, said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. That school tied its record-low 6.3% admission rate this year.

These schools invest the vast majority of their impressively-large capital funds in continuing to improve the quality of education by some fraction of a percentage.  In contrast, none of them have made meaningful investments in increasing their capacity to bring their already super-high level of education to more students (by this I mean doubling or tripling the size of its school-- Princeton to its credit did increase its capacity several years ago by something like 15%).   The number of clearly Ivy-qualified students has increased perhaps by an order of magnitude over the last 30 years but Ivy capacity has increased only trivially.

Let's say an Ivy has 5,000 students and a 10 point (on some arbitrary scale) education advantage over other schools.  Let's consider two investments.  One would increase their educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 11 (an increase I would argue that is way larger than the increase from investments they have recently made).  The other investment would double the size of the school from 5,000 to 10,000 but let's say that through dilution and distraction it dropped the educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 9.   The first investment adds something like 5,000 education points to the world (5,000 kids x 11 minus 5,000 kids x 10).  The second adds  40,000  points to the world (10,000 x 9 minus 5,000 x 10).  It's not even close.  In fact, the expansion option is still favored even if the education advantage drops by 40%.

I have written this suggestion in various forms to every Princeton President in the last 20 years and have finally just given up trying.  I have come to the conclusion that the administration and faculty don't actually care so much about Princeton's net contribution to the world, and care more about prestige.  In their hearts, I would bet that most of the administration and faculty -- very rationally from their personal incentives -- want to be associated with what is arguably the top undergrad school in the country, and might even consider cutting the class size in half if that is what is required to get stay there.  They get rewarded for being associated with a school with an educational advantage that is as high as possible, and no one's evaluation of that associated prestige is affected by whether that education is provided to one person or one thousand. If you buy Bryan Caplan's argument that college education is mostly all signalling, then we alumni should have the same attitude.

I did have one Princeton President engage me on this (Shirley M. Tilghman, who also oversaw the modest growth in Princeton's size I mentioned above).  The counter argument I hear is that it is really hard to keep these institutions great while tripling them in size and taking online students or whatever.  But that is a cop out, in my view.  The people who run these institutions preen that they are the thought-leaders in education.  Well any fool can run a capital campaign at Yale and build a new molecular biology building.  One of these folks should take on a harder task.   I have had my issues in the past with Arizona State (ASU) President Michael Crow, but I think it can be argued that he is contributing more to the world trying to figure out how to improve the education of 100,000 kids than is the Harvard President educating the same hand-picked 5,000 undergrads with incrementally-increased intensity.

"Water Is The Most Mispriced Commodity In The World". I agree

A few years ago there was a contest here in Arizona to see who could submit the best water conservation marketing campaign.   I submitted a picture of my water bill with the price photo-shopped so it was doubled.  Politicians here in Arizona subsidize the hell out of water, block or refuse to fund infrastructure projects that would produce more, and then blame consumers for shortages.

Anyway, Zero Hedge quotes a guy named Rick Rule, who I don't know, on a variety of commodities but his bit on water really struck me:

Following their discussion of nuclear energy and the future of uranium pricing, Townsend posed a much broader question: What will be the most important themes in the natural resources market in the coming years and decades.

Rule's answer might reinforce readers' anxieties over the availability of water - something that's already been widely discussed because of Cape Town's looming "Day Zero." Rule even went so far as to call water "the most mispriced commodity on Earth".

The third place – and this is very much more difficult to implement – is water. Water is the most mispriced commodity in the world. Because water is allocated politically. It is believed to be a right, as opposed to a commodity. The consequence of that – as an example, here in the US Southwest, we have taken sources of water, like the Colorado River, and we have allocated approximately 130% of the flow of the river to various claimants. This is sort of hard on the river. You have a circumstance where water flows uphill to votes rather than downhill for money. And you can’t allocate something that doesn’t exist.

And also because of the structure of the American water business. Because of the fact that most of it is delivered politically rather than via markets. The rents that go to water, while they are insufficient to maintain supply, go to municipalities. And they go to fund current political goals as opposed to maintaining the infrastructure for the production and distribution of water.

It is believed, on a country-wide basis, that we have deferred as much as 3 trillion dollars in sustaining capital investments in the water business. I can’t tell you when this theme comes home to roost. But when it does come home to roost, this might be one of the great resource themes of all time.

Is The Phoenix Housing Market Peaking?

I am not actually active in the residential home market, so I can (without losing any money) call market tops and bottoms from semi-random variables.  In 2005, I wrote here about a possible housing top when I overheard a dentist tell a doctor about all he money he was making flipping raw land  (I will apologize to dentists here, but when I studied investing at HBS 30 years ago I had a professor who would ask the class, for a bad investment, "who do we sell this to?"  Answer:  Doctors!   And if it is a really, really bad investment, who do we sell this to? Dentists!)

Anyway, I was out on my super-dorky but easy-on-the-knees and fun to ride elliptical scooter the other day and stopped to take a picture of a quiet intersection near my home:

I only got seven of the signs in my picture, but there were eight different open house notices for homes all within an easy walk of this location.  Reminded me of 2009.

Postscript:  By the way, I always feel bad about joking at the expense of doctors and dentists and their investments, so I will share one of my personal great moments in investment savvy.  In 1984 I graduated as a mechanical engineer that had a lot of background in programming and micro-computers (my specialty was control theory and something awkwardly called interfacing microprocessors with mechanical devices, which we just call "robotics" today).  I had lots of good job offers, and most were for about the same amount of money except one outlier that did not pay nearly as much but instead paid in all these crappy pieces of paper called options.  Hah!  I wasn't falling for that, and I turned them down and worked for real money.  That company I turned down was Microsoft and just the options they offered in the offer letter, I remember calculating once, would be worth more today than all my cumulative lifetime earnings to date.

This One Simple Trick Will Send a Lot of Municipalities Into Bankruptcy

The "trick":

Democrats in the state House have proposed issuing $107 billion in bonds to backfill the state’s pension funds, which are short $129 billion. Annual state pension payments are projected to increase to $20 billion in 2045 from $8.5 billion—not including interest on $17 billion in debt the state previously issued to pay for pensions.

At the request of state retirees, a University of Illinois math professor performed a crack analysis showing how the state could use interest-rate arbitrage to shave its pension costs. Under the professor’s math, the state could sell 27-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds and invest the proceeds into its pension funds. This would supposedly stabilize the state’s pension payments at $8.5 billion annually, save taxpayers $103 billion over three decades and increase the state retirement system’s funding level to 90% from 40%. Can the mathemagician make House Speaker Michael Madigan disappear too?

So what exactly does this mean? What is the trick?  Essentially, the trick is... investing using margin.  The professor's math was based on borrowing at 5% and then investing at 7.5% returns (the returns the pension funds have gotten over the last several years' bull market).    Ignore the fact that this rickety scheme probably will not be able to borrow at 5%, but likely at a higher rate.  Even at 5%, the problem is that if returns fall below the interest being paid on the bonds, the state and the pension funds are in worse shape than they were before.  If you saw a friend who was in the hole after a night of losing gambling who was trying to borrow more money from the house to try to make it all back, you would stop him, right?

Given the risk of falling short of covering the margin interest, one also has to worry about the portfolio asset allocation incentives here.  You certainly can't borrow at 5% or more and expect to make any money investing long-term in almost any sort of reliable bonds.  This is going to push the pension managers into riskier all-equity portfolios and even beyond into trying even riskier investments that have almost never worked out well for government pension funds.

I write all this because apparently this insanity is coming to Phoenix. ugh.

Update on the last point:  From today's WSJ:

A decade of low bond yields pushed some of the most stability-minded investors to dabble in risky investments that depended on markets being orderly. Now, those bets are looking problematic.

In the past, pension funds, endowments and family offices pursued relatively safe investments. After interest rates collapsed on the heels of the financial crisis, they ran into challenges paying pensioners and filling university budgets, and added riskier bets on hedge funds and venture capital in the hopes of winning better returns.

More recently, some of these investors also made big, unpublicized wagers seeking to benefit from what had been an unusually long period of low volatility, according to pension-fund consultants and others who deal with these institutions. The strategies, often involving the writing of complicated options contracts, were for years a source of easy money. Markets hadn’t been so calm since the 1950s.

Among those making such bets were Harvard University’s endowment, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii and the Illinois State Universities Retirement System.

Yet volatility has now returned to markets, with a vengeance. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 2,400 points in a week, intraday market swings also surged. The Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at its highest level last week since August 2015, recording its biggest one-day jump ever on Feb. 5 as it surged to 37.32 from 17.31 the prior day.

The $16.9 billion Hawaii fund in 2016 began earning money selling “put” options—essentially a bet that markets would stay calm or rise. When markets fall, Hawaii is on the hook to pay out.

 

Why Monopsony Employer Power Is Virtually Irrelevant to the Impact of a Higher Minimum Wage on Employment

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers most affected by the minimum wage.  After all, demand curves slope downwards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

There is a great body of work on employment effects of minimum wage, and surveying this corpus is beyond the scope of this paper, but a good starting point might be the recent detailed and careful study by Jardim et. al. of the University of Washington, which analyzed the employment effects of the increase in minimum wages in Seattle from $11 to $13.  They found that while average hourly wages for lower-paid workers went up by 3%, the total hours worked went down by 9%, resulting in a net reduction in total wages for lower-paid, lower-skill workers at the same time that other sectors of the Seattle economy were booming.

Monopsony Power & The Labor Market

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that these employment effects are exaggerated, because employers have something called monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers.  What a monopoly is to customers – it limits choices – a monopsony does to suppliers, in this case the suppliers of labor.  The argument is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market, gaining the company added savings that increase its profits.  Under this theory, minimum wage laws help to offset this power imbalance and force companies to disgorge some of their excess profits in favor of higher wages.  If this assumption is true, then demand for labor would not be reduced due to a minimum wage increase because, prior to the wage increase, companies were paying less than they were willing to pay and thus are still willing to continue to pay the wages at the new higher rates.

While economists argue about this monopsony theory, my intuition as an employer makes me skeptical.  However, rather than argue about whether my little company that scrambles to staff itself every year somehow wields excess power in the labor markets, I am going to argue that the existence of monopsony power is irrelevant to the employment effects of a minimum wage increase: Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such bargaining power imbalances, whatever gains they reap from workers will end up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important of the forces for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm?  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down to some minimum level.

Let’s consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.    As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins probably averaging around 5% of revenues (for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%).

If there were some margin windfall to be obtained from labor market power that allowed a company to hire people for far less than their labor was worth to it, and thus earn well above this lowest tolerable margin,  new companies would try to enter the market, probably by lowering prices to consumers using some of that labor premium.  Eventually, even if the monopsony premium exists, it is given away to consumers in the form of lower prices.  If the wholesale price of gasoline suddenly falls sharply, gasoline retailers don't get to earn a much higher margin, at least not for very long.  Competition quickly causes the retailer's lowered costs to be passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail prices.  The same goes for any lowering of labor costs due to monopsony power  -- if such a windfall exists, it is quickly passed on to consumers.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms, profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners interested in the business. The much more likely responses will be:

  • Raising prices to cover the increased costs. While competitors that are subject to the same laws will likely have similar increases, the increase may not be acceptable to consumers and almost certainly will result in some loss in unit sales.
  • Reducing employment. There are a variety of ways in which a minimum wage increase could result in employment losses.  A company might raise its prices to compensate for higher costs, only to find its unit volumes falling, necessitating a layoff in staff.  Or the staff reductions may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to investments in capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  • Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of exiting a few selected low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

A Real-World Minimum Wage Increase Example

A concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc.) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in places like Seattle and California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of supposedly absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase.   It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even given both the minimum wage increase and the lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.

In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.

Number of Private Jobs Created By all Past Presidents Combined: Zero

For eight years, I had to endure articles from the Left about all the jobs Obama had created.  Now that the White House has changed hands, it is all the bloggers on the Right breathlessly reporting job creation by Trump and heralding the February job figures (example).  Though the Left is still trying to credit Obama (example)

  1.  Presidents do not create private jobs.  Period.  Even so-called infrastructure spending and stimulus merely take private money from whatever it was being used for previously and applies it to investment projects that politicians want.  Sure, there are new easy to see infrastructure jobs from these projects, but what is also there, largely unseen, are whatever jobs would have been created (or not lost) had the money used for these projects been left to private individuals to spend or invest as they see fit.
  2. Presidents do have long-term effects on prosperity, but these are usually based on regulatory and tax policy that can take years to play out -- not the span of days from January 20 to February.  The main effect government officials can have is negative, by creating drags on private enterprise.  The best they can achieve is generally removal of past negatives.
  3. To the extent individual companies credit Trump with various job growth steps, this is a function of our corporate crony state, not any underlying economic reality.  I have been at the highest levels of Fortune 50 companies (not as an executive but as a consultant and later as executive staff).  Corporations do not suddenly make changes in business strategy and capital investment plans based on elections.  They do make changes based on real changes, e.g. this tax policy was changed or that regulation was changed, none of which has yet occurred.  Of course, they may credit the new President as responsible for certain investments or changed decisions, but this is generally flattery attached to actions that would have happened anyway, or crass calculations meant to garner higher crony status in the future.

Is The Carbon Tax A Pricing Signal To Reduce CO2, Or A Funding Mechanism for a Patronage System to Feed Various Constituencies?

This is an absolutely fascinating article at Vox on efforts by green forces and the Left to defeat a carbon tax ballot initiative in Washington State.  The ballot initiative was written very similarly to my proposed plan, where a carbon tax would be made revenue neutral by offsetting other taxes, particularly regressive ones.

Apparently, the Left is opposing the initiative in part because

  1. It turns out the carbon tax, for many on the Left, is more about increasing the size of government rather than really (or at least solely) for climate policy, and thus they do not like the revenue neutrality aspects.  They see carbon taxes as one of the last new frontiers in new government revenue generation, and feel like it would be wasted to make it revenue neutral
  2. The Greens have made common cause with the social justice warrior types, so they dislike the Washington initiative because it fails to allow various social justice and ethnic groups cash in.
  3. Apparently, folks on both the Left and the Right actually like government picking winners and tinkering in individual subsidies and programs, such as funding various green energy and conservation initiatives.  To me, that stuff is all a total waste and made irrelevant by a carbon tax, whose whole point is to allow markets to make the most efficient CO2 reduction choices, but looking at this election it would not be the first time the electorate was ignorant on basic economics.

There is a real disconnect here that it is important to understand.  I don't think I really understood how many of us could use the term "carbon tax" but understand its operation in fundamentally different ways, but I think that is the case.

The authors of the law, like me, see the carbon tax as a pricing signal to efficiently change behaviors in the market around use of carbon-based fuels.  The whole point of a carbon tax is to let individual actions and market forces shape how solutions are created.  But the Left seems to see the carbon tax totally differently.  They don't understand, or don't accept, the power of the pricing signal in the market, or else they would not say things like they want a "put a fee on emissions and reinvest that revenue in clean energy" -- the latter is a redundant and pointless government action if one accepts the power of the tax, since individuals will already be responding by making such investments.  The Left instead sees the carbon tax as the source of a new kitty of money that then must be fought over in some sort of political process.

Check out this passage, and consider whether these folks are thinking of the carbon tax as a pricing signal or a source of new money to be spread around:

Either way, state social justice groups did not feel consulted. "Rather than engaging with these communities," wrote Rich Stolz and De'Sean Quinn of environmental justice group OneAmerica, "I-732 organizers patronized and ignored concerns raised by these stakeholders."

White people who work with other white people — and the white people who write about them — tend to slough off this critique. What matters, they insist, is the effect of the policy, not the historical accident of who wrote it down.

Bauman points to a set of policy demands posted by Black Lives Matter. Among them: "shift from sales taxes to taxing externalities such as environmental damage." Also: "Expand the earned income tax credit."

"Well," Bauman says, "we did both those things, right?"

But communities of color want more than for mostly white environmental groups to take their welfare into account. Most of all, affected groups want some say in what constitutes their welfare. "All of us want to be included from the beginning of any decision," says Schaefer. "We don't want to be told after the fact, ‘Hey, by the way, we decided all this stuff for you.’"

This tension within the climate movement has played out most recently in California, where low-income and minority groups have won substantial changes to the state’s climate law, ensuring that a larger portion of cap-and-trade revenue is directed to their communities. Given demographic changes sweeping the country — and climate funders’ newfound attention to building up the capacity of those groups — those tensions are unlikely to remain confined to the West Coast.

These folks see the carbon tax as a pool of money to fund a patronage system, and are thus scared that any groups not involved in crafting the legislation will be left out of the benefits of the patronage -- after all, that is how most programs from the Left are put together.  The Obama stimulus program back in 2009 was such a patronage project, and those who were in on crafting it got windfalls, and those who were left out of the process had to pay for it all.  Either the Left assume that everything works this way, even when it does not, or they want everything to work this way -- I don't know which.

One thing I do know is that I fear I am going to lose this argument in the future.  Here is one way to look at it -- are more people graduating from college looking at the world through the lens of markets and economics and incentives or are more graduating structuring issues in terms of social justice and government authority?

 

The Corporate State, In One Chart

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

W160518_BESSEN_WHATSDRIVING-1200x805

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Yglesias Summarizes the Public Parks Opportunity in One Paragraph

A two-fer!  This is from Yglesias's very good article on passenger rail also quoted in the previous post.  In discussing why Amtrak is generally uninterested in making incremental improvements on the Northeast Corridor, he writes:

The way Amtrak is currently set up, there's no real incentive to undertake incremental improvements. The Northeast Corridor already generates an operating profit, which simply defrays losses elsewhere in the system. Making it run better doesn't generate any wins for the people who would have to do the work, and would plausibly just lead Congress to reduce subsidies. If the NEC were spun off as an independent entity — perhaps even a private company — then it could internalize the gains from improved service and seek private financing to make cost-effective investments.

Long-time readers will know that my company privatizes the operation (but not the ownership) of public parks.  I will make two-hour presentations to parks agencies about how we can improve operations quality while cutting costs by 30-50% or more, and the near-universal response is, "well, if you reduce costs, then the legislature will just reduce our appropriations."  More efficient park operations, and at the margin better visitor service, don't create any wins for agency employees given their incentives.  In fact, if the parks are improved and more people show up, their job is just harder.  I had the manager of Arizona's premier state park tell me, absolutely in all seriousness, that he had the best job in the world if it wasn't for all the visitors.  Can you imagine a McDonald's franchise manager saying that?   As I have always said, government is not populated with bad people, it is populated with perfectly normal people who have terrible incentives.

When agencies choose how to spend incremental funds, they will almost always try to route these to the agency staff, in the form of more headcount and/or more pay.  When money is actually spent to make investments in the parks themselves, projects are chosen not by return on investment or customer priorities, but based on which ones will create the most prestige for the agency and its leaders.  This latter is one reason the Washington Metro is the mess it is, as the agency and the politicians who make appropriations will always prioritize system expansions over capital maintenance and sensible incremental improvements.

Why Wind and Solar Are Not Currently the Answer on Emissions Reductions

I have made this point forever, but it always bears repeating -- the variability of wind and solar require hot fossil fuel backups that leads to little reduction in total fossil fuel generation capacity (so that wind and solar investments are entirely duplicative) and less-than-expected reductions in actual emissions.

I don't think wind will ever be viable, except perhaps in a few unique offshore locations.  Solar is potentially viable with a 10x or so reduction in panel costs and a 10-100x reduction in battery/energy storage costs.  I honestly think that day will come, but we are not there.

From the Unbroken Window comes this slide from an interesting presentation at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, essentially making the same points I and others have been trying to make for years.

I made the point about nuclear in my climate legislative proposal here.

Net Neutrality: I Told Your So

From the WSJ (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You Know It Is Time to Short the Economy When...

.... your paper prints headlines that say "Economists: Zero chance of Arizona recession."  I am sure Houston would have said the exact same thing, right up until oil prices dropped to $30 and suddenly there was like a 100% chance.  When the Arizona Republic makes a definitive economic prediction, bet the other side.

Anyway, I am considering this headline to be a flashing indicator of the top.  In 2005 I wrote about another such indicator that told me the housing market had peaked:

So, to date [May 31, 2005], I have been unconvinced about the housing bubble, at least as it applied to our community.  After all, demographics over the next 20-30 years are only going to support Scottsdale area real estate.

However, over the weekend I had a disturbing experience:   At a social function, I heard a dentist enthusiastically telling a doctor that he needs to be buying condos and raw land.  The dentist claimed to be flipping raw land parcels for 100% in less than 6 months.

For those who don't know, this is a big flashing red light.  When doctors and dentists start trying to sell you on a particular type of investment, run away like they have the plague.  At Harvard Business School, I had a great investment management class with a professor who has schooled many of the best in the business.  If an investment we were analyzing turned out to be a real dog, he would ask us "who do you sell this to?" and the class would shout "doctors!"  And, if the investment was really, really bad, to the point of being insane, the class would instead shout "dentists!"

Which reminds me that in the last 6 months I have started hearing radio commercials again urging folks to get into the house-flipping business and make their fortune.  Whenever institutions start selling investments to you, the average Joe, rather than just investing themselves, that should be taken as a signal that we are approaching a top**.  About 12-18 months before oil prices tanked, I started getting flooded with spam calls at work trying to sell me various sorts of oil exploration investments.

** Postscript:  In 2010, when house prices were low and some were going for a song in foreclosure, there were no house flipping commercials on radio.   That is because Blackstone and other major institutions were too busy buying them up.  Now that these companies see less value, you are hearing house flipping commercials.   You know that guy who has a book with his fool-proof method for making a fortune?  So why is he wasting his time selling books for $2 a copy in royalties rather than following his method?

A Few Thoughts About the Yosemite Trademark Brouhaha

A lot of folks have been asking for my thoughts on this conflict, where Delaware North, the departing concessionaire at the Yosemite Lodge, is claiming they own trademarks associated with the old, beloved lodges that must be bought out for lots of money, either by the government or the new concessionaire.

There are lots of versions of National Park Service (NPS) concession contracts floating around out there, and as I have had a few of these contracts, I am generally familiar with the terms and problems that arise (though I want to caution I am not privy to any insider details of this dispute).  But here are a few thoughts:

One of the hardest problems with government concession contracts is how does the government provide incentives for the private company to invest capital in the concession without giving the concessionaire a long-term contract that reduces the government's control.  Since any improvements made to the government land can't be removed and become the property of the government, it probably takes a 30-year contract to cause private companies to want to make such investments (as they would then have time to get a return from the assets, and most improvements tend to have a 20-30 year life anyway).  But the government does not want to lock themselves into one concessionaire for 30 years - 10 is as far as the NPS generally wants to go.

So the NPS has a process by which private companies can make permanent investments in the facilities, and the amount of these investments are added to an account (it used to be called Leasehold Surrender Interest, or LSI, so I will call it that -- I am not sure what it is called in current contracts).  At the end of the contract, there are some formulas for valuing the LSI in the account, and if the concessionaire loses the contract, the next concessionaire has to buy out the LSI.  If there is no next concessionaire, the Feds have to buy it out.

This provides good incentive for investment, because money you put in you basically get out at the end, plus any return in the middle.  Also, since there is a federal guarantee of repayment, this makes it possible to get a bank loan to finance the improvements (otherwise an investment in leasehold improvements on government land that the bank can't put a lien on is impossible to get bank financing for).  But this also creates problems.  Over the years, the LSI can grow so huge that it becomes impractical for anyone to buy out -- the LSI numbers at these large concessions can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  This is what happened at the Grand Canyon, when the US Government had to pay down the LSI by tens of millions of dollars to get companies to bid.  The other issue is that it creates a large, unfunded, off-the-books obligation for the government (because they ultimately back repayment of the LSI) in the billions of dollars.

Anyway, it is my understanding that it is not the LSI that is the problem here.  NPS contracts also for years had a provision that not only did one have to buy out the previous concessionaire's LSI (which represents investments in permanent facilities), but one also had to buy all the personal property he had associated with the concession (eg boats, trucks, inventory, shelves, coolers, etc).  While the LSI provision is generally sensible, though with some issues, this personal property buyout often led to disaster.  Because, unlike LSI, there is no agreed-upon value for the property (if the NPS is following its process, they can tell you at any point in time what the LSI is worth and everyone should be in agreement -- no similar process exists for valuing personal property of the concession).

So here is the situation.  The outgoing concessionaire has an asking price for his personal property, and the incoming concessionaire has an offer price likely well south of the seller's price.  In a normal transaction, there is some negotiation.   But a key part of the negotiation is that at some point the buyer can just walk away and refuse to buy.  This walk-away is not allowed in the NPS contract situation.  The incoming guy HAS to buy.  So outgoing concessionaires, particularly unscrupulous ones, will set a huge asking price and refuse to come off it.  Arbitration is possible, but mediators often split the baby in a way that sellers still get above-market rates for their stuff.  And all the while this takes time -- one is supposed to be opening the concession and we have not even secured rights to the assets we need to run it!  So the clock is ticking AND we can't walk away.  Incoming concessionaires often get hosed  (which is why I believe new contracts in the NPS do not include this personal property buy-out provision).

This happened to us at a NPS marina in Colorado.  The previous concessionaire ran a number of businesses in the area.  When they lost the concession, they stripped it of any good assets it had and then went around to all of its other businesses and gathered up all the junk and useless assets they could find and dumped them into the concession.   They then demanded a huge price for all this junk.   The NPS was absolutely no help -- they had no records of concession assets, and with turnover no one had even really visited the concession much.   We ended up taking a loss in the $200,000 range, buying a whole yard of stuff that we almost immediately had to pay to have carted to a junk yard.  Later we found that we were on the hook for almost a half million in facility repairs the previous company had never made -- the NPS had detailed notebooks of the failed inspections and required maintenance that was never performed, but never once disclosed any of this to us until we had signed the contract, and then demanded that we were on the hook for it all.  But that is another story, which goes to explain why I will never, ever work with the NPS again.

Anyway, my take is that Delaware North is doing the same thing that happened to me in Colorado, but on a larger scale -- writing up the price of a bunch of assets (in this case intellectual property) and using the terms of the bad NPS contract to extract above-market pricing for them from the next concessionaire.  All entirely legal, but at the cost of absolutely destroying their reputation with the NPS (I wonder if Delaware North is planning to exit the NPS concession business anyway such that they don't care).  Anyway, the new concessionaire, Aramark has certain advantages that I did not have as a small company.  In particular, they can simply refuse to buy the assets (which they have -- they have already renamed all the lodges and stores) and fight the issue in the courts later.

By the way, if you are wondering how the US Government can be so casual with trademarks and intellectual property, this tends to be, in my experience, a huge blind spot for them.  As an example, the US Forest Service uses a single national reservations company and all of us concessionaires in the Forest Service are required to use that company.  Years ago, the company who won the contract promised better information on the website about each campground.  So, for the hundred plus campgrounds we operate, at the request of the US Forest Service, we spent weeks measuring sites, taking pictures, and drawing campground maps for posting on the reservation system.  Several years later, when this reservation company lost the contract, it turns out the company had contract provisions from the government that the believed let them retain all the intellectual property.  The company then claimed all the maps, pictures, and site descriptions -- that we developed -- were theirs.  What a mess.  I can't totally remember how it came out but I think we got the rights to the pictures and descriptions back but all new maps had to be made.  The point is that the government has historically been myopic about the value of non-physical assets.

Is The Media Actually Waking Up to How Rail is Sinking Public Transit?

Readers will know that this is one of my favorite topics on this blog, how huge investments in showy rail projects that amp up the prestige of government officials tend to cannibalize lower cost bus service and, at the end of the day, actually reduce total transit ridership.  The LA Times almost sortof recognizes this, and Randal O'Toole is on the case:

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so thereforefewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

...

Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.

...

Los Angeles ridership trends are not unusual: transit agencies building expensive rail infrastructure often can’t afford to keep running the buses that carry the bulk of their riders, so ridership declines.

  • Ridership in Houston peaked at 102.5 million trips in 2006, falling to 85.9 million in 2014 thanks to cuts in bus service necessitated by the high cost of light rail;
  • Despite huge job growth, Washington ridership peaked at 494.2 million in 2009 and has since fallen to 470.4 million due at least in part to Metro’s inability to maintain the rail lines;
  • Atlanta ridership peaked at 170.0 million trips in 2000 and has since fallen nearly 20 percent to 137.5 million and per capita ridership has fallen by two thirds since 1985;
  • San Francisco Bay Area ridership reached 490.9 million in 1982, but was only 457.0 million in 2014 as BART expansions forced cutbacks in bus service, a one-third decline in per capita ridership;
  • Pittsburgh transit regularly carried more than 85 million riders per year in the 1980s but is now down to some 65 million;
  • Austin transit carried 38 million riders in 2000, but after opening a rail line in 2010, ridership is now down to 34 million.

I will add that total transit ridership has been totally flat in Phoenix after construction of a major light rail project.  The project's total cost is approaching $2 billion as they slowly add on short extensions, but this amount did nothing but cannibalize bus ridership.  In fact, the situation is worse than this, since before light rail was built, Phoenix transit ridership was growing rapidly every single year, so in fact light rail actually likely reduced ridership by about 14 million.  The whole story is here.  (I will have an update in a moment but they have updated the chart from that article and ridership fell yet again in 2015).

And This is Different from the US, How?

I am out of the country (currently in Thailand for a wedding).  I read this in the local Asian WSJ, an article about money and patronage in the Malaysian political process.  And while I suppose I was supposed to think "wow, Malaysia is sure screwed up" -- all I was really left with at the end of this article was "how is this any different from the US?" How does 1MDB differ from, say, various green energy funds at the Federal level or community development funds at the local level?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was fighting for his political life this summer after revelations that almost $700 million from an undisclosed source had entered his personal bank accounts.

Under pressure within his party to resign, he called together a group of senior leaders in July to remind them everyone had benefited from the money.

The funds, Mr. Najib said, weren’t used for his personal enrichment. Instead, they were channeled to politicians or into spending on projects aimed at helping the ruling party win elections in 2013, he said, according to a cabinet minister who was present.

“I took the money to spend for us,” the minister quoted Mr. Najib as saying.

It still isn’t clear where the $700 million came from or where it went. But a six-month Wall Street Journal examination revealed that public entities spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive patronage machine to help ensure Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization stayed in power. The payments, while legal, represented a new milestone in Malaysia’s freewheeling electoral system, according to ruling-party officials....

The effort relied heavily on the state investment fund Mr. Najib controlled, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., according to minutes from 1MDB board meetings seen by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with people who worked there.

The prime minister, who is chairman of 1MDB’s board of advisers, promised repeatedly that the fund would boost Malaysia’s economy by attracting foreign capital. It rolled up more than $11 billion in debt without luring major investments.

Yet Mr. Najib used the fund to funnel at least $140 million to charity projects such as schools and low-cost housing in ways that boosted UMNO’s election chances, the Journal investigation found.

The minutes portray a fund that repeatedly prioritized political spending, even when 1MDB’s cash flow was insufficient to cover its debt payments.

This illustrates one (of many) reasons why those lobbying to reduce campaign spending are on the wrong track.  Because no matter how much one limits the direct spending in elections, no country, including the US, ever limits politicians from these sorts of patronage projects, which are essentially vote-buying schemes with my tax money.

The reason there is so much money in politics is because supporters of large government have raised the stakes for elections.  Want to see money leave politics? -- eliminate the government's ability to sacrifice one group to another while subsidizing a third, and no one will spend spend a billion dollars to get his guy elected to public office.

By the way, in this current Presidential election we are seeing a vivid demonstration of another reason campaign spending limits are misguided.  With strict spending limits, the advantage goes to the incumbent.  The only people who can break through this advantage are people who are either a) already famous for some other reason or b) people who resort to the craziest populist rhetoric.  Both of which describe Donald Trump to a T (update:  Trump has spent virtually no money in this election, so he should be the dream candidate of clean elections folks, right?)

The Paradox of Index Funds (And the Joy of Shopping)

Mark Perry makes the (updated) case for index funds.  I need no convincing, as most** of my savings (such that they are) are in Vanguard index funds of various sorts.

But as I was reading his article, I couldn't help thinking that there is a flaw with the "everyone should be in index funds" advice -- if everyone actually was 100% in index funds, they would not work.  Index funds are premised on the idea that stock prices are pretty well reflective of the information out there in the marketplace -- the company's future prospects, the strength of its market position, the direction of external factors such as economic growth and interest rates, etc.  But this is only going to be true if there are investors out there trying to pick stocks and beat the market -- ie if everyone is not in index funds.

It sort of reminds me of the old economics joke where a man is walking down the street with an economist, and the economist walks right past a $20 bill lying on the ground.  The man says to the economist -- "do you realize you just walked past a $20 bill?" and the economist answered, "It couldn't really be there -- in an efficient market, someone would have already picked it up."

In some ways, the stock pricing paradox here is just an example of a larger phenomena which for the lack of a better name I call "the joy of shopping."  People make fun of shopping all the time, but economically shopping is really a miracle.  All the things we attribute to prices and efficient markets and competition and the accountability of markets depend on shopping.  Individuals have to be out there making price-value trade-offs between products, or between buying something and not buying something.   For example, at least half of everything wrong with health care economics can be explained by lack of shopping.

The interesting thing is that only a small percentage of consumers in any particular market have to be hard-core shoppers (meaning they do tons of research and compare prices across multiple sellers) for all of us to benefit.  I seldom look at a price in Wal-Mart because I know other people who care a lot have enforced a discipline on Wal-Mart.  Just as with my Vanguard mutual funds, I depend on that core of folks who walks the aisles of Wal-Mart checking every price against Amazon and Target.

 

** I do enjoy picking stocks, and have a particular affinity for shorting things too early.  I never, ever let this portfolio grow to more than 5% of my total savings, and treat it explicitly as a sandbox to play in rather than real investments on which my future well-being depends.

Why Valley Metro (Phoenix Light Rail) Can't Be Trusted and Shouldn't Be Given More Tax Money to Play With

I was reading this article in the Arizona Republic (which is generally an unskeptical cheerleader for light rail investments) and looking at the claim that Valley Metro (the operator of Phoenix light rail) had a 45% fare recovery ratio in 2013.  One would think that means that their fares cover 45% of their costs -- which would be awful for any real enterprise but is pretty good for government-run rail systems.

But in fact, Valley Metro (along with rail supporters in the Administration) stack the deck by defining most of the costs out of this metric so it looks far better than it really is.  In fact, by my reading of their financial statements, the true fare recovery is at best 15.2% and likely much worse.

Here are the Valley Metro financials for 2013, from their annual report

 

Look at their costs of $75+ million and fares of about $12.8 million.  How do they get to 45%?  Simple -- they leave the majority of their costs out.  They exclude administrative costs, financing costs, and depreciation (essentially their capital cost) from the equation.  This means that their fare recover is 45% -- IF you ignore their large administrative costs and you ignore the $1.4+ billion the line cost to build.   Further, because of the way the government does its finances, it is also missing any financing costs (interest and such on debt).

So the true cost recovery, stated in a way that  a reasonable person would think about such a number, is 16.8% at best.  If one takes into account the $8.28 million in "non-operating expenses" the number is 15.2%.  And it is even lower if you were to include interest and other financing costs.

I am sure Valley Metro will argue that this is the way the Feds measure it.  I don't care.  It has an obligation to accurately report its financial position to the public who is paying for it, particularly when the public is considering further investments in the form of higher taxes.  The 45% is a meaningless number that is crafted solely to make light rail look financial stronger than it really is.

This, by the way, is why total ridership of rail + buses has stalled since the construction of the light rail line.  Light rail is so expensive per rider that it is starving cash from the rest of the system.

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.

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.

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.