Posts tagged ‘investments’

Net Neutrality is Not Neutrality, It is Actually the Opposite. It's Corporate Welfare for Netflix and Google

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.

Check this out: Two companies (Netflix and Google) use half the total downstream US bandwidth.  They use orders and orders of magnitude more bandwidth than any other content creators, but don't want to pay for it (source)

sandvine-2h-2013

Why should you care?  Well, the tilting of this balance has real implications for innovation.  It creates incentives for content creators to devise new bandwidth-heavy services.  On the other hand, it pretty much wipes out any incentive for ISP's (cable companies, phone companies, etc) to invest in bandwidth infrastructure (cell phone companies, to my understand, are typically exempted from net neutrality proposals).  Why bother investing in more bandwidth infrastrcture if the government is so obviously intent on tilting the rewards of such investments towards content creators?  Expect to see continued lamentations from folks (ironically mostly on the Left, who support net neutrality) that the US trails in providing high-speed Internet infrastructure.

Don't believe me?  Well, AT&T and Verizon have halted their fiber rollout.  Google has not, but Google is really increasingly on the content creation side.  And that is one strategy for dealing with this problem of the government tilting the power balance in a vertical supply chain:  vertical integration.

Postscript:  There are folks out there who always feel better as a consumer if their services are heavily regulated by the Government.  Well, the Internet is currently largely unregulated, but the cable TV industry is heavily regulated.  Which one are you more satisfied with?

Update:  OK, after a lot of comments and emails, I am willing to admit I am conflating multiple issues, some of which fit the strict definition of net neutrality (e.g.  ISP A can't block Planned Parenthood sites because its CEO is anti-abortion) with other potential ISP-content provider conflicts.  I am working on some updates as I study more, but I will say in response that

  1. President Obama is essentially doing the same thing, trying to ram through a regulatory power grab (shifting ISPs to Title II oversight) that actually has vanishly little to do with the strict definition of net neutrality.   Net neutrality supporters should be forewarned that the number of content and privacy restrictions that will pour forth from regulators will dwarf the essentially non-existent cases of net neutrality violation we have seen so far in the unregulated market.
  2. 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. And for those who keep telling me that this sort of behavior is different and won't be illegal under net neutrality, then please explain to me how in practice one defines a ban based on a supply chain rent-division arguments and a ban based on nefarious non neutrality.

Great Example of the Completely Insane Way We Manage Water

Virtually every product and service we purchase has its supply and demand match by prices.  Higher prices tell buyers they should conserve, and tell suppliers to expend extra effort finding more.

Except for water.

Every water shortage you ever read about is the result of refusing to let prices float to dynamically match supply and demand.  And more specifically, are the result of a populist political desire to keep water prices below what would be a market clearing price (or perhaps more accurately, a price that maintains reservoir levels both above and below ground at target levels).

So, some groups in Arizona are offering a$100,000 prize to help solve the water shortage.  And what is it they are looking for?  A better price system?  Nah:

A $100,000 prize awaits the group that comes up with the most innovative ­campaign to push water scarcity into the forefront of public ­conversation...

The competition wants to create a public-service campaign that raises awareness about the challenges facing Arizona's long-term water supply so residents will feel an urgency to start working on them now.

If Arizonans don't change how they consume water and start brainstorming new solutions for dwindling supplies, shortages won't be a choice, they will be an unavoidable reality. Planning for the future of water now will help ensure there is enough water for future generations, Brownell said.

The message isn't new; it has been taught with puppets, posters, television spots, brochures and landscape-design classes for years.

But experts, researchers and industry workers agree that as long as taps gush clear,drinkable water, it's hard to keep water scarcity part of public conversation.

"One challenge is getting people to take ownership of their decisions and how they contribute to the demand side of the equation," said Dave White, co-director of Arizona State University's Decision Center for a Desert City, which studies water use and sustainability....

Possible solutions to meeting Arizona's future water needs include:

• Desalination of sea water, which requires large financial investment and collaboration between government agencies and possibly Mexico.

• Rebates for water-efficient systems. Tucson offers up to $1,000 for households that install gray-water recycling systems to reuse water from sinks, showers and washing machinesfor irrigation.

• Increasing the use of recycled or reclaimed water. Arizona already uses this water to irrigate landscaping and recharge aquifers, but not as drinking water.

• Cloud seeding. The Central Arizona Project has spent nearly $800,000 to blast silver iodide into clouds to try to increase snowfall in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where the snowpack feeds the Colorado River.

I will say that it is nice to see supply side solutions suggested rather than the usual demand side command and control and guilt-tripping.   But how can we possibly evaluate new water supply solutions like desalinization if we don't know the real price of water?  Accurate prices are critical for evaluating large investments.

If I find the time, I am going to tilt at a windmill here and submit an entry.  They want graphics of your communications and advertising materials -- I'll just show a copy of a water bill with a higher price on it.  It costs zero (since bills are already going out) and unlike advertising, it reaches everyone and has direct impact on behavior.  If you want to steal my idea and submit, you are welcome to because 1. The more the merrier and 2.  Intelligent market-based solutions are never ever going to win because the judges are the people who benefit from the current authoritarian system.

PS-  the site has lots of useful data for those of you who want to play authoritarian planner -- let some users have all the water they want, while deciding that other uses are frivolous!  Much better you decide than let users decide for themselves using accurate prices.

Feminists and Disarming the Victim and a Modest Proposal

I have just been flabbergasted at the feminist reaction against efforts to teach women to be more difficult targets for sexual predators (e.g. communicating the dangers of binge drinking, nail polish that detects date rape drugs, etc).  Nobody thinks that encouraging people to buy burglar alarms or lock their doors is somehow shifting blame for robbery to the victim.  But that is exactly the argument feminists are making vis a vis sexual assault on campus.  They argue that any effort to teach victims to be a tougher target is an insult to women and must be avoided.

This is just stupid.  So stupid that I wonder if there is an ulterior motive.  There is no way you ever are going to get rid of bad people doing bad things.  Our historic messaging on things like date rape may have been confused or insufficiently pointed, but we have always been clear on, say, murder and there is still plenty of that which goes on.  I almost wonder if feminists want women to continue to be victims so they can continue to be relevant and have influence.  It's a sick thought but what other explanation can there be for purposely disarming victims?

So I was jogging the other night through a university (Vanderbilt) and saw all those little blue light emergency phones that are so prevalent on campus.   In most cases, the ubiquity of those emergency phones is a result of the growing female population on campus and are there primarily to make women (and perhaps more importantly, their parents who write the checks) be safer feel more comfortable.  Women's groups were big supporters of these investments.  But why?  Isn't that inconsistent?  Shouldn't we consider investment in such emergency devices as wrong-headed attempts to avoid fixing the root cause, which is some inherent flaw in males?

If you say no, that it would be dumb to rip out the emergency phones, then why is it dumb to teach Freshman women some basic safety skills that may prevent them from being victims?   I have taken numerous campus tours with my kids and in almost every one they point out the blue light phones and in almost every case say, "I have never heard of these being used, but they are there."  I guarantee 30 minutes helping women understand how to avoid particularly risky situations would have a higher return than the phones.

I say this with some experience.  I was in a business for a while that required international travel and in which there was some history of executives getting attacked or kidnapped in foreign cities.  The company gave us a one-day risk-identification as well as beginner escape and evasion course.  It was some of the most useful training I have ever had.  And not for a single second did I think anyone was trying to blame me for street crime in foreign cities.

Apparently, Corporations Are Not Investing Because They Are Not "Socially Engaged"

Paul Roberts has an editorial in the LA Times that sortof, kindof mirrors my post the other day that observed that corporate stock buybacks (and investments to reduce tax rates) were likely signs of a bad investment climate.  Until he starts talking about solutions

Roberts begins in a similar manner

Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus creating the impression of a healthier business without the risks of actual business activity.

Share buybacks aren't illegal, and, to be fair, they make sense when companies truly don't have something better to reinvest their profits in. But U.S. companies do have something better: They could be reinvesting in the U.S. economy in ways that spur growth and generate jobs. The fact that they're not explains a lot about the weakness of the job market and the sliding prospects of the American middle class.

I suppose I would dispute him in his implication that there is something unseemly about buybacks.  They are actually a great mechanism for economic efficiency.  If companies do not have good investment prospects, we WANT them returning the cash to their shareholders, rather than doing things like the boneheaded diversification of the 1960's and 1970's (that made investment bankers so rich unwinding in the 1980's).  That way, individuals can redeploy capital in more promising places.  The lack of investment opportunities and return of capital to shareholders is a bad sign for investment prospects of large companies, but it is not at all a bad sign for the ethics of corporate management.   I would argue this is the most ethical possible thing for corporations to do if they honestly do not feel they have a productive use for their cash.

The bigger story here is what might be called the Great Narrowing of the Corporate Mind: the growing willingness by business to pursue an agenda separate from, and even entirely at odds with, the broader goals of society. We saw this before the 2008 crash, when top U.S. banks used dodgy financial tools to score quick profits while shoving the risk onto taxpayers. We're seeing it again as U.S. companies reincorporate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This narrow mind-set is also evident in the way companies slash spending, not just on staffing but also on socially essential activities, such as long-term research or maintenance, to hit earnings targets and to keep share prices up....

It wasn't always like this. From the 1920s to the early 1970s, American business was far more in step with the larger social enterprise. Corporations were just as hungry for profits, but more of those profits were reinvested in new plants, new technologies and new, better-trained workers — "assets" whose returns benefited not only corporations but the broader society.

Yes, much of that corporate oblige was coerced: After the excesses of the Roaring '20s, regulators kept a rein on business, even as powerful unions exploited tight labor markets to win concessions. But companies also saw that investing in workers, communities and other stakeholders was key to sustainable profits. That such enlightened corporate self-interest corresponds with the long postwar period of broadly based prosperity is hardly a coincidence....

Without a more socially engaged corporate culture, the U.S. economy will continue to lose the capacity to generate long-term prosperity, compete globally or solve complicated economic challenges, such as climate change. We need to restore a broader sense of the corporation as a social citizen — no less focused on profit but far more cognizant of the fact that, in an interconnected economic world, there is no such thing as narrow self-interest.

There is so much crap here it is hard to know where to start.  Since I work for a living rather than write editorials, I will just pound out some quick thoughts

  • As is so typical with Leftist nostalgia for the 1950's, his view is entirely focused on large corporations.  But the innovation model has changed in a lot of industries.  Small companies and entrepreneurs are doing innovation, then get bought by large corporations with access to markets and capital needed to expanded (the drug industry increasingly works this way).  Corporate buybacks return capital to the hands of individuals and potential entrepreneurs and funding angels.
  • But the Left is working hard to kill innovation and entrepreneurship and solidify the position of large corporations.  Large corporations increasingly have the scale to manage regulatory compliance that chokes smaller companies.  And for areas that Mr. Roberts mentions, like climate and green energy, the government manages that whole sector as a crony enterprise, giving capital to political donors and people who can afford lobbyists and ignoring everyone else.  "Socially engaged" investing is nearly always managed like this, as cronyism where the politician you held a fundraiser for is more important than your technology or business plan.  *cough* Solyndra *cough*
  • One enormous reason that companies are buying back their own stock is the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program, which I would bet anything Mr. Roberts fully supports.  This program concentrates capital in the hands of a few large banks and corporations, and encourages low-risk financial investments of capital over operational investments
  • All those "Social engagement" folks on the Left seem to spend more time stopping investment rather than encouraging it.  They fight tooth and nail the single most productive investment area in the US right now (fracking), they fight new construction in many places (e.g. most all places in California), they fight for workers in entrenched competitors against new business models like Lyft and Uber, they fight every urban Wal-Mart that attempts to get built.  I would argue one large reason for the lack of operational investment is that the Left blocks and/or makes more expensive the investments corporations want to make, offering for alternatives only crap like green energy which doesn't work as an investment unless it is subsidized and you can't count on the subsidies unless you held an Obama fundraiser lately.
  • If corporations make bad investments and tick off their workers and do all the things he suggests, they get run out of business.  And incredibly, he even acknowledges this:  "And here is the paradox. Companies are so obsessed with short-term performance that they are undermining their long-term self-interest. Employees have been demoralized by constant cutbacks. Investment in equipment upgrades, worker training and research — all essential to long-term profitability and competitiveness — is falling."  So fine, the problem corrects itself over time.  
  • He even acknowledges that corporations that are following his preferred investment strategy exist and are prospering -- he points to Google.   Google is a great example of exactly what he is missing. Search engines and Internet functionality that Google thrives on were not developed in corporate R&D departments.  I don't get how he can write so fondly about Google and simultaneously write that he wishes, say, US Steel, were investing more in R&D.  I would think having dinosaur corporations eschew trying to invest in these new areas, and having them return the money to their shareholders, and then having those individuals invest the money in startups like Google would be a good thing.  But like many Leftists he just can't get around the 1950's model.  At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is too chaotic -- the Left wants large corporations that it can easily see and control.

A Bad Sign for the Economy

I don't think readers will be surprised to learn that I don't have any particular moral problem with tax inversions, reverse acquisitions that allow companies to take advantage of lower foreign tax rates.  The US has perhaps the most costly and unwieldy tax code in the world, made worse by our unique insistence on double taxation of foreign earnings that prevents companies like Apple from repatriating billions of dollars.  My tax plan begins with the elimination of corporate income taxes altogether, not only as an efficiency and growth step but as a huge step in fighting cronyism.

So I certainly don't share all this creepy Leftist desire for loyalty oaths and such from corporations.  But I do have a concern about the economy.  Over the past couple of years, it appears that a lot of corporate borrowing has been to:

  1. Buy back their own stock
  2. Reduce their tax rate, in part through inversions (apparently over 2/3 of 2014 M&A volume is inversions)

When the two best investments a company can find are in its own stock and in reducing tax rates, then there appears to be a problem with the underlying universe of investment opportunities.

Actually, the best investment our company has found this year is in closing operations in California and escaping that regulatory and litigation mess.

 

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

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

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

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

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

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

Wherein I Almost Agree With Thomas Friedman on a Climate Issue

Thomas Friedman outlines what he would do first to attack climate change

Well, the first thing we would do is actually slash income taxes and corporate taxes and replace them with a carbon tax so we actually encourage people to stop doing what we don't want, which is emitting carbon, and start doing what we do want, which is hiring more workers and getting corporations to invest more in America.

Friedman is a bit disingenuous here, as he proposes this in a way that implies that deniers (and probably evil Republicans and libertarians) oppose this common sense approach.  Some may, but I would observe that no one on the alarmist side or the Left side of the aisle is actually proposing a carbon tax that 1:1 reduces other taxes.  The only person I know who has proposed this is Republican Jeff Flake, who proposed a carbon tax that would 1:1 reduce payroll taxes.

As I said back then, I am not a big fan of taxes and think that the alarm for global warming is overblown, but I could easily get behind such a plan.  Payroll taxes are consumption taxes on labor.  I can't think of anything much more detrimental to employment and economic health.  So Flake's proposed shift from a consumption tax on labor to a consumption tax on carbon-based energy sources is something I could get behind.  I probably would do the same for Friedman's idea of shifting taxes from income to carbon.  But again, no one is proposing that for real in Congress.  The only plan that came close to a vote was a cap and trade system where the incremental payments would go into essentially a crony slush fund, not reduce other taxes.

Of course, since this is Friedman, he can't get away without saying the government should invest more in infrastructure

 the federal government would borrow money at almost 0 percent and invest it in infrastructure to make our cities not only more resilient, but more efficient.

In TARP and the stimulus and various other clean energy bills, the government borrowed almost a trillion dollars at 0% interest.  How much good infrastructure got done?  About zero.  Most of it just went to feed government bureaucrats and planning studies or ended up as crony payments to well-protected entities (Solyndra, anyone?).  The issues with government infrastructure investments, which Friedman has never addressed despite zillions of articles on infrastructure, are not the borrowing rate but

  • The incentive and information problems the government has in making investments of any sort.
  • The vast environmental, licensing, and NIMBY factors that make it virtually impossible to do infrastructure projects any more, at least in any reasonable time frame.

The Regulation Singularity

Yesterday, I came home exhausted.  I have been working late nearly every night for weeks, at a time of year when most of my business is not even open yet (the business is seasonal).  I realized to my immense depression that I have been spending all my time on regulatory compliance.  I have not been pitching new clients or bidding on new prospects or making investments or improving our customer service processes -- though I have ideas for all of these.  I have been 100% dedicated through 14 hour days to just trying to keep up with and adapt to changing government rules.

Break rules, changing minimum wages, heat stress plans, mandatory sexual harassment training, OSHA reporting, EEO reporting, Census reporting, and most recently changing rules on salaried workers that Obama just waived his wand and imposed -- this is what has been consuming me.  I have been trying to roll out a new safety program to the field and can't do it because I keep having to train for one of these new requirements (one learns there is only a limited number of things one can simultaneously roll out to front-line staff).

At some point regulation will accrete so fast that it will be impossible to keep up.  I am going to call that the Regulation Singularity, and for businesses my size, we are fast approaching it.

Prominent libertarian think tanks often rank state business climate by their tax regimes.  I am all for low, sensibly-structured taxes.  But for most of my time, taxes are irrelevant.  We are shutting down businesses left and right in California and it has zero to do with taxes.

About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.

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

The Washington Post reports on an updated CBO report:

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

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

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

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

click to enlarge

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

 

Apparently, Rental Homes Are Not Like Bonds

It is always hard to tell if the media is really offering a balanced sample of customer experiences when they pile on some company, but the Huffpo makes a pretty good case that large Wall Street home rental companies are doing a terrible job at customer service.

If so, I am unsurprised for three reasons:

  • I run what is essentially a property management company.  One thing I have learned is that everyone outside of the business systematically underestimates basic maintenance and operating costs, and few if any ever factor in the costs of longer-term capital maintenance.  Further, and perhaps more critically, outsiders frequently underestimate the detailed, even minute focus on process and organization that is necessary to make sure everything is getting maintained satisfactorily  particularly when the portfolio gets larger than the executive group can personally oversee.
  • I have rented out a second home for a few years.  It is difficult and expensive to stay on top of basic maintenance, and this is with one property that one is intimately familiar with.  I challenge you to find many people who will say they made money renting their second homes, particularly given the high cost of property management.  They may have made money on the appreciation of the real estate value, or reduced the net costs of owning a vacation home, but I seldom run into anyone making money on a annual basis (as long as the real cost of capital is being considered in the equation).
  • Wall Street has a long history of treating operational assets as financial assets.  There is a huge mindset difference between the two.  The book Barbarians at the Gate included some early history of LBO firms like KKR, and it is interesting the culture clashes they faced as they tried to explain the need to be operationally involved in their investments to the financial guys who wanted to treat them as Deals.

What Is Wrong With Health Care, Though My Diagnosis is Opposite of the Left's

Note:  I did not like the way I first wrote this post so I have re-written it extensively.  

Progressives are passing around this chart from Brookings as an indicator of "what is wrong" with the US healthcare system.

blog_proton_beam_facilities

This is how Kevin Drum interprets the chart:

In other words, the supposed advantage of PRT—that it targets cancers more precisely and has fewer toxic side effects—doesn't seem to be true. It might be better in certain very specialized cases, but not for garden variety prostate cancer.

And yet, new facilities are being constructed at a breakneck pace. Why? Because if they build them, patients will come. "They're simply done to generate profits," says health care advisor Ezekiel Emanuel. Roger that.

This is an analysis that may be true, but let's take a moment to consider how strange it is.  Forget health care for a minute.  Think about any other industry.  Here is what they are effectively saying:

  1. Industry competitors are making huge investments in a technology that has no consumer value
  2. The competitors in this industry are all making investments in this technology so rapidly that the industry is exponentially over-saturating with capacity.

And from these two facts they conclude that the profits of industry competitors will increase??

Let's for a moment say this is true -- an enormous investment that has no customer utility and that is made by so many players that the market is quickly over-saturated actually increases industry profits.  Let's take a moment to recognize that this is BIZARRE.  We have to be suspicious of some structural issue for something so bizarre to happen.  As is typical of progressives, their diagnosis seems to be that private actors are somehow at fault for being bad people to make these investments.  But these same private actors, even if they wanted to, could never make this work in any other industry, and besides there is no evidence that hospital managers are any worse people than, say, cookie company managers.  The problem is that we have fashioned a bizarre system through heavy government intervention that apparently makes these pointless investments sensible to otherwise rational actors.

One problem is that in any normal industry, consumers would simply refuse to buy, or at least refuse to pay a very high price, for services that have little or no value.  But in health care, we have completely eliminated any consumer visibility to prices.  Worse, we have eliminated any incentive for them to care about prices or really even the utility of a given procedure.  This proton beam thingie might improve my outcomes 1%?   Why not, it's not costing me anything.  Perhaps the biggest problem in health care is that the consumer has no incentive to shop.  Obamacare does nothing to fix this issue, and in fact if anything is taking us further away from consumer shopping and price transparency by working to kill high deductible health insurance and HSA's.

There is only one other industry I can think of where capital investment, even stupid capital investment, automatically translates to more profits, and that is the regulated utility business.  And that is what hospitals have become -- regulated utilities that get nearly automatic returns on investment.

In a truly free market, if these investments made no sense, one would expect very soon a reckoning as those who made these nutty investments go bankrupt.  But they obviously don't expect this.  They expect that even if it turns out to be a bad investment, they will use their political ties to get these costs built into their rate base (essentially built into reimbursement rates).  If any private or public entity refuses to pay, you just run around screaming to the media that they want to deny old people care and let sick people die.  Further, the government can't let large hospitals go bankrupt because it has already artificially limited their supply through certificate of need processes in most parts of the country.

The Left has proposed to fix this by creating the IPAB, a group so divorced from accountability that it can theoretically make unpopular care rationing decisions and survive the political fallout.  But the cost of this approach is enormous, as it essentially creates an un-elected dictatorship for 1/7 of the economy.  Which tends to be awesome if your interests and preferences line up with those of the dictator, but sucks for everyone else.  Which category do you expect to be in?  (Oh, and let's not forget how many examples we have from history of benevolent technocratic dictatorships - zero.)

The much more reasonable solution, of course, is to handle these issues the same way we do in cookies and virtually every other product -- let consumers make price-value tradeoffs with their own money.

Keynesian Multiplier of 0.05

So much for that Keynesian stimulus notion (emphasis in the original)

With everyone focused on the 5th anniversary of the Lehman failure, we are taking a quick look at how the world's developed (G7) nations have fared since 2008, and just what the cost to restore "stability" has been. In a nutshell: the G7 have added around $18tn of consolidated debt to a record $140 trillion, relative to only $1tn of nominal GDP activity and nearly $5tn of G7 central bank balance sheet expansion (Fed+BoJ+BoE+ECB). In other words, over the past five years in the developed world, it took $18 dollars of debt (of which 28% was provided by central banks) to generate $1 of growth. For all talk of "deleveraging" G7 consolidated debt has been at a record high 440% for the past four years.

The theory of stimulus -- taking money out of the productive economy, where it is spent based on the information of hundreds of millions of people as to the relative value of millions of potential investments, and handing it to the government to spend based on political calculus -- never made a lick of sense to me.  I guess I would have assumed the multiplier in the short term was fractional but at least close to one, indicating in the short run that if we borrow and dump the money into the economy we would get some short-term growth, only to have to pay the piper later.  But we are not even seeing this.

The Problem with Infrastructure

Obama, accompanied by the usual chorus on the Left including Kevin Drum, is yet again trumpeting infrastructure spending as a partial economic solution for what ails us, in part based on a McKinsey Global Institute report.   Infrastructure is like education (the other half of the Obama "plan") -- it's hard to find anyone against it per se, it is easy to find examples of it failing, and it is really hard to craft programs at the Federal level that really improve anything.

Having been inside the McKinsey sausage factor for five years, I was loath to just accept their conclusion without seeing the data, so I read the section of the report on infrastructure.  Having read the report, I still don't see how they got to the under-funding number.  Some of the evidence is laughably biased, such as pronouncements from the American Society of Civil Engineers, who clearly would be thrilled with more government infrastructure spending.  The rest comes from something called the world economic forum, but I simply don't have the energy right now to follow the pea any further.

I had two reactions to this plan:

  1. Presumably what infrastructure projects we choose matters, so how can we have any confidence (given things like our green energy investment program) that these investments will be chosen wisely and not based on political expediency?
  2. From my experience, and also from the McKinsey numbers, most of the infrastructure needs are refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure, rather than new infrastructure.  But politicians are typically loath to make these kind of investments, preferring to offer new toys to voters rather than saying all that money was spent just to keep their existing toys.  Just look at the DC metro system, which is still pursuing expensive expansion plans at the same time it refuses to perform capital maintenance and replacement on its current crumbling infrastructure.  Or look at Detroit which is falling apart but still wants to spend $400 million on a new hockey rink.

I was pleasantly surprised that McKinsey actually raised both of these issues as critical.  To the point about project selection:

To effectively deploy additional investment in infrastructure, the United States will have to improve its performance on project election, timely delivery and execution, and maintenance and renewal. This could raise the overall productivity of US infrastructure by as much as 40 percent and generate more economic impact for every dollar spent. And there is added pressure to raise infrastructure productivity today: as commodity prices rise, input costs are going up as well. In extreme circumstances, this can even lead to spot shortages of asphalt and other critical materials, making productive use of such assets even more important.

One of the most effective ways to make infrastructure investment more productive is to choose the right mix of projects from the outset. Too often, the primary approval criteria for project selection in the United States are political support and visibility rather than comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.129 Even when economic analysis is used, it is not always rigorous, or it may be disregarded in actual decision making. When state and local governments choose sub-optimal projects, the cost of financing rises, so focusing on those projects with the clearest returns is a crucial part of taking a more cost-effective approach for the nation as a whole.

In addition, planners at all levels of US government tend to have a bias toward addressing congestion and bottlenecks by building new capacity. But rather than immediately jumping to build new infrastructure projects to solve problems,
planners and project sponsors might first consider refurbishing existing assets or using technology to get more out of them. (See “Better maintenance, optimization, and demand management can extend the life of existing infrastructure assets” later in this chapter.)

The McKinsey study is not arguing for Keynesian digging holes and filling them in again.   They are arguing for infrastructure spending but only if it is better targeted than such programs have been in the past.   Anything about this Administration (or any other Administration, really) that gives you confidence this will happen?

In fact, they argue that a large reason for under-developed infrastructure is not the spending level per se but the insanely inefficient way in which government spends the money

Delays and cost overruns are a familiar refrain in infrastructure projects. Boston’s Big Dig, for example, remains the costliest highway project in US history and was plagued by years of delay and shoddy construction. Originally estimated at $2.6 billion, it now has a final price tag estimated by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation at $24.3 billion, including interest on borrowing. More recently, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge is being completed almost a decade late, and its original budget of $1.3 billion has grown to more than $6 billion.

Finally, their recommendation focuses more on maintenance and the prosaic, rather than expensive sexy headline grabbing investments (cough California high speed rail cough) that politicians prefer

Another major strategy for increasing infrastructure productivity involves maximizing the life span and capacity of existing assets. In many cases, directing more resources to these areas may be a more cost-effective choice for policy makers than new build-outs.

First, there is a need to focus more attention on maintenance, refurbishment, and renewal. This is an increasingly urgent issue for the nation’s aging water infrastructure, much of which was built in the years immediately after World War II; some of the nation’s oldest pipe systems are now more than a century old. Even more recent water treatment plants will need refurbishment: many built in the
1970s after passage of the Clean Water Act will soon require rehabilitation or replacement. Proactive maintenance to upgrade and extend the life of these aging systems is becoming a more urgent priority.

The study uses a GDP multiplier of 1.77 for infrastructure spending, which explains why their claimed GDP impacts are so high.  Using this kind of chicked-in-every-pot high multiplier will of course make infrastructure spending seem like a no-brainer.  Of course those of us with more sympathy towards Austrian economics, wherein recessions are caused by misallocations of capital, will worry that this kind of government spending program, shifting private resources to public decision makers to spend, will only double down on the same crap that caused the recession in the first place.  I grew up with Japan's MITI being praised as a model by the American Left, watched the lost decades that followed this government-directed investment program, and believe that a similar reckoning is coming in China.

Classic Partisan Thinking

Kevin Drum writes

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I am sure it is perfectly true that there are Conservatives who knee-jerk oppose every government renewable energy and recycling and green jobs idea that comes along without reference to the science.  But you know what, there are plenty of Liberals who knee-jerk support all these same things, again without any understanding of the underlying science.  Mr. Drum, for example, only recently came around to opposing corn ethanol, despite the fact that the weight of the science was against ethanol being any kind of environmental positive years and years ago.  In fact, not until it was no longer cool and caring to support ethanol (a moment I would set at when Rolling Stone wrote a fabulous ethanol expose) did Drum finally turn against it.  Is this science, or social signalling?   How many folks still run around touting electric cars without understanding what the marginal fuels are in the electricity grid, or without understanding the true well-to-wheels efficiency?  How many folks still run around touting wind power without understanding the huge percentage of this power that must be backed up with hot backup power fueled by fossil fuels?

Why is his almost blind support of renewable energy without any reference to science or the specifics of the technologies involved any saner than blind opposition?  If anything, blind opposition at least has the numbers on their side, given past performance of investments in all sorts of wonder-solutions to future energy production.

The reason there is a disconnect is because statists like Drum equate supporting government subsidies and interventions with supporting renewables.  Few people, even Conservatives, oppose renewables per se.  This is a straw man.  What they oppose are subsidies and government mandates for renewables.  Drum says he has almost limitless confidence in  man's ability to innovate.  I agree -- but I, unlike he apparently, have limitless confidence in man's ability to innovate absent government coercion.  It was not a government program that replaced whale oil as an illuminant right when we were approaching peak whale, it was the genius of John D. Rockefeller.  As fossil fuels get short, prices rise, and people naturally innovate on substitutes.  If Drum believes that private individuals are missing an opportunity, rather than root for government coercion, he should go take up the challenge.  He can be the Rockefeller of renewable energy.

Postscript:  By the way, it is absurd and disingenuous to equate opposition to what have been a series of boneheaded government investments in questionable ventures and technologies with some sort of a-scientific hatred of fossil fuel alternatives.  I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

Ugh, Another Crony Enterprise Born

When I read this in our local paper, alarm bells immediately went off:

A friendship cemented while working together on the state’s economic development efforts has led to a new partnership linking Roy Vallee, the former Avnet Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, with private developer Don Cardon.

Great, two folks who have focused on bringing crony corporatist benefits to selected local businesses and business relocations are going into business together.  I don't know these guys, I am sure they are fine folks, but my first thought was a business that leveraged their connections with government to create private profits.

Reading further, this seems like a good guess:

The two metro Phoenix business leaders say they will collaborate on large commercial developments, including those with a special public-interest focus and those with special complexities....

Cardon spent three years at the Arizona Commerce Authority, a public-private partnership, and the predecessor Arizona Commerce Department. Aside from that, he perhaps is best-known as a driving force behind CityScape, the three-block, $1.2 billion mixed-use development in downtown Phoenix. He cites as a strength his ability to bring private and public interests together on a project.

Yep, I definitely think I am on to something:

The firm will strive to encourage a “collective vision” and “make sure projects are worthy of investment and will be successful,” Cardon said. “Everything we do will involve public value, enriching the quality of life.”

You know the type of project -- the ones where the city / state / Feds justify investing millions of taxpayer money into private projects because "they create jobs" (like those at Solyndra).  In fact, the two partners are already polishing up this mantra, which I am sure we will hear over and over:

Deals typically will exceed $100 million and will create hundreds of jobs, both in the development stage and when complete, he said. The company , however, will maintain a fairly lean staff.

“We’re not a big employer, but we’ll be a job creator,” he said.

I want to make a couple of quick points:

  • Investments whose primary return is "jobs" are not investments, because jobs are a cost, not an income stream.  Investing public money to create jobs means that one is investing money now so that it incurs costs later. 
  • All successful capitalist enterprises that make  a profit by definition create "public value" and "enrich the quality of life."  Otherwise no one would buy their product or service and they would fail.  In fact, only publicly-funded projects can evade this sort of accountability.  When it is said that these projects deliver "public value," what is meant is that they deliver benefits that a few self-selected people have defined as somehow interesting to the public, but which it turns out the public (when given a choice) is unwilling to pay for.  Which is how we get the local town of Glendale continuing to subsidize an ice hockey team for $25 million or so a year.

Krugman Dead Wrong on Capital Controls

I am a bit late to the game in addressing Krugman's comments several days ago when he said:

But the truth, hard as it may be for ideologues to accept, is that unrestricted movement of capital is looking more and more like a failed experiment.

This was in response to the implosion of Cyprus banks, which was exacerbated (but not necessarily caused) by the banks being a home for a lot of international hot money - deposits so large they actually dwarfed the country's GDP.

I generally rely on Bastiat's definition of the role of the economist, which I will quote from Wikipedia (being too lazy on this Friday morning to find a better source):

One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can be made only by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences – that is, benefits or liabilities – of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term second and third consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candlemaking), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it, an economist must take into account both "What is Seen and What is Not Seen."

By this definition, Krugman has become the world's leading anti-economist.  Rather than reject the immediate and obvious (in favor of the larger picture and the unseen), he panders to it.  He increasingly spends his time giving intellectual justification to the political predilection for addressing symptoms rather than root causes.  He has become the patron saint of the candle-makers petition.

I am not naive to the fact that there are pools of international hot money that seem to be some of the dumbest money out there.  Over the last few years it has piled into one market or another, creating local asset bubbles as it goes.

But to suggest that international capital flows need to be greatly curtailed merely to slow down this dumb money, without even considering the costs, is tantamount to economic malpractice.

You want to know what much of the world outside of Western Europe and the US would look like without free capital flows?  It would look like Africa.  In fact, for the younger folks out there, when I grew up, countries like China and India and Taiwan and Vietnam and Thailand looked just like Africa.  They were poor and economically backwards.  Capital flows from developed nations seeking new markets and lower cost labor has changed all of that.  Over the last decade, more people have escaped grinding subsistence poverty in these nations than at any other time in history.

So we have the seen:  A million people in Cyprus face years of economic turmoil

And the unseen:  A billion people exiting poverty

By pandering to those who want to expand politicians' power based on a trivial understanding of the seen and a blindness to the unseen, Krugman has failed the most important role of an economist.

Other thoughts:  I would offer a few other random, related thoughts on Cyprus

  • Capital controls are like gun and narcotics controls:  They stop honest people and do little to deter the dishonest.  In the case of Cyprus, Krugman obviously would have wanted capital controls to avoid the enormous influx of Russian money the overwhelmed the government's effort to stabilize the banks.  But over the last several weeks, the Cyprus banks have had absolute capital controls in place - supposedly no withdrawals were allowed.  And yet when the banks reopened, it become increasingly clear that many of the Russians had gotten their money out.  Capital controls don't work as a deterrence to money that is already corrupt and being hidden.
  • No matter what anyone says, the huge capital inflows into Cyprus had nothing to do with the banking collapse.  The banks had the ability to invest the money in a range of international securities, and the money was tiny compared to the size of those security pools.  So this is not like, say, a housing market where in influx of money might cause a bubble.   The only harm caused by the size of the Russian investments is that once the bank went bad, the huge size of the problem meant that the Cyprus government did not have the resources to bail out the bank and protect depositors from losses.
  • Capital controls are as likely to make bubbles worse as they are to make them better.  Certainly a lot of international money piling into a small market can cause a bubble.  But do capital controls really create fewer bubbles?  One could easily argue that the Japanese asset bubble of the late 80's would have been worse if all the money were bottled up in the country. When the Japanese went around the world buying up American movie studios and landmark real estate, that was in some sense a safety valve reducing the inflationary pressure in Japan.
  • Capital controls are the worst sort of government expropriation.  You hear on the news that the "haircut" taken by depositors in Cyprus might be 20% or 80% or whatever.  But in my mind it does not matter.   Because once the government put strict capital controls in place, the haircut effectively became 100%, at least for honest people that don't have the criminal ability or crony connections to beat the system.  Cyprus basically produces nothing.  Since money is only useful to the extent that it can buy or invest in something, then bottling up one's money in Cyprus basically makes it worthless.
  • Capital controls are a prelude to protectionism.   First, international trade is impossible without free flow of capital.   No way Apple is going to sell ipods in Cyprus if they cannot at some point repatriate their profits.  Capital controls can also lead to export controls.  If I can't export money, I might instead buy jets, fly them out of the country, and then sell the jets.
  • Let's not forget that the core of this entire problem is a government, not a private, failure.  Banks and investors treated sovereign euro-denominated debt as a risk-free investment, and banking law (e.g. Basil II) and pension law in most countries built this assumption into law.  Cyprus banks went belly-up because the Greeks, in whom they had (unwisely) invested most of their funds, can't exercise any fiscal responsibility in their government.  If European countries could exercise fiscal responsibility in their government borrowing, 80% of the banking crisis would not exist (housing bubbles and bad mortgage securities have contributed in some countries like Spain).  There is a circle here:  Politicians like to deficit spend.  They write regulations to encourage banks to preferentially invest in this government paper.  When the government debt gets iffy, and the banks face collapse, the governments have to bail them out because otherwise there is no home for their future debt.  The bailouts get paid for with more debt, which gets crammed back into increasingly over-leveraged banks.    What a mess.
  • All of this creates an interesting business school problem for the future:  What happens when there are no longer risk-free investments?  Throughout finance one talks about risk free rates and all other risks and risk premiums and discussed in reference to this risk-free benchmark.  In regulation, much of banking capital regulation and pension regulation is based on there being a core of risk free, liquid investments.  But what if these do not exist any more?
  • I have thought a lot about a banking model where the bank accepts deposits and provides basic services but does no lending - a pure deposit bank with absolute transparency on its balance sheet and investments.  I think about a web site depositors can check every day to see exactly where depositors money is invested and its real time values.  Only listed, liquid securities with daily mark to market.   Open source investing, as it were.  In the past, deposit insurance has basically killed this business model, but I think public confidence in deposit insurance just took a big-ass hit this week.

Postscript:  I don't want to fall into a Godwin's law trap here, but I am currently reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and it is impossible for me to ignore the role strict capital controls played in Nazi Germany's trapping and liquidation of the Jews.

PS#2:  Oops, Hayek beat me by about 70 years to the postscript above

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Hotels Among the Favored Few in the Corporate State (Along with Sports Teams, Taxi Owners, and Farmers)

The various cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have spent a fortune renovating ten spring training fields for 15 major league teams.  I have seen a number like $500 million for the total, but this seems low as Scottsdale spent $100 million for just one complex and Glendale may have spent as much as $200 million for theirs.  Never-the-less, its a lot of taxpayer money.

The primary subsidy, of course, is for major league teams that get lovely facilities that they use for about one month in twelve.

But these subsidies always get sold on their community impact.  But that economic impact turns out to be really narrow.  For in-town visitors, the economic impact is typically a wash, as money spent on going to sports games just substitutes for other local spending.  But these stadiums are held up as great economic engines because they attract out of town visitors:

Cactus League baseball and year-round use of its ballparks and training facilities add an estimated $632 million to Arizona economy, according to a study released Monday by the Cactus League Baseball Association.

The study found that 56 percent of the 1.7 million fans attending games this past spring were out-of-state visitors and the median stay in metro Phoenix was 5.3 nights.

Spring training accounted for $422 million in economic impact in 2012, up 36 percent from the previous study in 2007. Both were done by FMR Associates of Tucson.

One of the flaws of such studies is they never, ever look at what the business displaces.  For example, for local visitors, they never look at local spending sports customers might have made if they had not gone to the game.  All spending on the sports-related businesses are treated as incremental.   For out-of-town visitors, no one ever considers other visitors coming for non-sports reasons who are displaced (March was already, without all the baseball, the busiest hotel month in Phoenix) or considers that some of the visitors might have come to the area anyway.

However, let's for one moment of excessive credulity accept these numbers, and look at the out of town visitors.  56 percent of 1.7 million people times 5.3 nights divided by 2 people per room is 2.52 million room nights, or at $150 each a total of $378 million.   So most of their spring training economic impact is hotel room nights.  This by the way is the same logic that supports various public subsidies of local college bowl games.

Which begs the question, why are we spending upwards of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to subsidize sports teams and hotel chains?  If the vast majority of the economic impact of these stadium investments is for hotels, why don't they pay for them, or split the cost with the teams?

PS- as an aside, it seems that to be successful in the corporate state, one needs ready access to consultants who will put absurdly high numbers on the positive impact of one's government subsidies.  It's like money laundering, but with talking points.  Take your self-serving spin, hand it with a bunch of money to a consultant, and out comes a laundered "study".  In this case, the "study" architects are FMR Associates, which bills itself as specializing "in strategic research for the communications industry."  The communications industry means "PR flacks".   So they specialize in making your talking points sound like they have real research behind them.  Probably a growing business in our corporate state.

Romney and Republican Messaging Fail

I got a lot of email that Republicans aren't libertarians and to stop complaining that they are not.  OK.  But let's look at their campaign messaging in the context of their own values.

Republicans had a golden opportunity to use the results of a natural experiment over the last four years between red and blue states.  Obama constantly harped on the fact that 3.5 million new jobs had been created on his watch.  Rather than play dueling statistics or end points in this analysis, the Republicans should have taken advantage of existing red/blue data:

Yes.  And the vast majority of these jobs were created in states like Texas which have been successful precisely because they have labor and tax policies which you, Mr. Obama, oppose.  And they have been created in industries like Oil and Gas production that you, Mr. Obama, have done your best to hinder.  All the jobs you claim to have helped to create were actually facilitated by a philosophy of government you oppose, by regulatory policy you would overturn if you could, and in industries you would prefer did not exist.   States like Texas -- with organic growth driven by private capital -- stand in stark contrast to your investments of our taxpayer money in bankrupt companies like Solyndra.   If you had had your way, Mr. Obama, few of these jobs would have been created.  Yes, this country saw some job creation, but it occurred despite your efforts, not because of them.

Instead of this clear kind of message, we get a bunch of wonky stuff about tax deductions vs. tax rate changes.  Heck, even if you told me I had to run my campaign on the single plank of eliminating tax deductions, I could have done a better job.  I saw this part of the debate that Romney supposedly won.  His explanation was lame.  What about this instead:

This country over the past several decades has increasingly become plagued by cronyism.  Whether it be Wall Street bankers or public employees unions or casket sellers in Louisiana, everyone wants to try to convert influence with the government into taxpayer money for themselves.  We have to end this.  And a good place to start is with the tax code.  Every special deduction and tax credit in the tax code is a giveaway to some special interest.  At best it is a misguided attempt, like the money we wasted in Solyndra, of politicians to try to pick winners and losers, to say that one kind of spending is somehow better than another.  At worst, these deductions are a crony giveaway.  Sure, it's  eliminating these deductions will help reduce the deficit.  But even more importantly, eliminating them would be an opening shot in the war to take cronyism and corporatism out of Washington.

Killing Mainstreet Banks

C. Boyden Gray and Adam White make the case that Dodd-Frank is an enormous gift to big banks, for two reasons:

  • By putting large banks in a special class -- essentially too big to fail -- it ensures that these banks will be able to raise capital far more easily than can smaller banks, since investments in larger banks are essentially guaranteed by the US government.  This is the same mechanism by which Fannie and Freddie crowded out most other sources of mortgage financing.
  • By creating an enormous mass of new regulations, large banks get a cost advantage because they can much more easily pay these fixed costs as they are amortized over a much larger business.

You Ungrateful Slobs Should Be Thankful That The Federal Government Is Running Up Huge Debt

I know what you are thinking -- in this post title Coyote has engaged in some exaggeration to get our attention.  But I haven't!  Felix Salmon actually says this, in reaction to a group of CEO's who wrote an open letter to the feds seeking less deficit spending.

MW-AR995_debt_f_20120607165649_ME.jpgThere are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up.

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government. And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money.

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

I seldom do this, but let's take this apart paragraph by paragraph:

There are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up. 

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government.

Duh.  Of course they are talking about the government deficit and not total deficit.   But he is setting up the game he is going to play throughout the piece, switching back and forth between government debt and total debt like a magician moving a pea between two thimbles.  We can already see the game.  "Look folks debt is not a threat, it is going down", but it is going down only at this total public and private debt number.  The letter from the CEO's made the specific argument that rising government debt creates current and future issues (see: Europe).  Just because all debt may be going down does not mean that the rise of one subset of debt is not an issue.

Here are two analogies.  First, consider a neighborhood where most all the residents are paying down their credit card debt except for Fred, who is maxing out his credit cards and has just taken out a third mortgage.  The total debt for your whole neighborhood is going down, but that does not mean that Fred is not in serious trouble.

Or on a larger scale, take consumer debt.  Most categories of consumer debt are falling in the US.  But student debt is rising alarmingly.  Just because total consumer debt may be falling doesn't change the fact that rising student debt is a serious threat to the well-being of a subset of Americans.

And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money

What??  Whoever said that the role of the Federal government is to offset changes in corporate borrowing?  In his first paragraph, he already called the rise in total debt "alarming", and I get the sense that both CEO's and consumers agree and so they have been trying to reduce their debts.  So why should the Feds be standing athwart the private unwinding of an "alarming" problem?    And how does he know CEO's and their corporations are part of this deleveraging?  I see no evidence presented.  Corporate debt is but a small part of total US debt.  Corporations may be a part of this, or not.

In fact, they are not.  Corporate borrowing in the securities market has increased almost every quarter since 2008, such that total corporate bond debt is about 10-15% higher than in 2008 (see third chart here).  And here is total debt to GDP broken down by component  (this is for non-financial sectors) source.

Government debt is basically offsetting the consumer deleveraging.  Since consumers have to eventually pay this government debt off, as they are taxpayers too, then the government is basically flipping consumers the bird, forcing them to take on debt they are trying to get rid of.  Hard working consumers think they are making progress paying off debt, but the joke is on them - the feds have taken the debt on for them, and the bill will be coming in future taxes for them and their kids.

He might argue, "this is Keynesianism."  But is it?  If corporations are actually deleveraging, we still don't know how.  Is it through diverting capital investment to debt repayment (as I think Salmon is assuming) or are they raising capital from other sources and rejiggering the right side of their balance sheets?  And even if this deleveraging is coming at the expense of corporate investment, I thought Keynesians virtually ignored investment or "I" in their calculations  (you remember, don't you, from macro: C+I+G+X-M?).  In fact, if I remember right, "I" is treated as an exogenous variable in the famous multiplier "proof".

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

This is the real howler -- that "markets" are sending a low-interest signal.  Markets are doing nothing of the sort.  The Federal Government, via the Fed, is sending this signal with near-zero overnight borrowing rates and $30-$40 billion a month in money printing that is used to buy up government debt from the market.  If any signal is being sent at all, it is that the Federal Government is main economic priority is continuing to prop up the balance sheet and profitability of major US banks.

Investment is also not solely driven by the price of funds.  There must be opportunities where businesses see returns that justify the spending.  Unlike the Federal government, which is A-OK blowing billions on companies like Solyndra, businesses don't invest for the sake of spending, they invest for returns.  A soft economy combined with enormous government driven uncertainties (e.g. what will be our costs to comply with Obamacare) are more likely to affect investment levels than changes in interest rates.

 Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

This is where economic thinking has ended up in 2012:  To Salmon, it does not matter where the Federal government spends this money, so long as it is spent.  He never even tries to justify that the government is running up debt in a good cause, because what it spends money on does not matter to him.  For him, the worst possible thing for the economy is for people to spend their money paying down debt.  Spend it on more drone strikes or more Solyndras or more squirrel research -- it does not matter to Salmon as long as the money is used for anything other than to pay down debt.

Here is the bottom line:  Businesses and individuals are trying to reduce their debt.  And many hard-working people think they are being successful at this.  But the joke is on them.  The government is running up trillions in debt in their name, thwarting American's desire to de-leverage.  Mr. Salmon wants us to thank the government for this.  Hah.

All-in-all, this is an awful argument to try to justify Congressional and Presidential fecklessness vis a vis  the budget.

More California Idiocy -- Calpers Scam to Run Private Pension System

A new California mandate on employers I completely missed:

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that permits as many as 6.3 million private workers without a pension plan to set aside retirement money for management by the state.

It is the first state-run pension program for nongovernment employees and may add as much as $6.6 billion to funds managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the biggest U.S. pension. Calpers, as the fund is known, has assets of $242 billion.

The law is aimed at businesses with five or more employees that don’t offer pensions or 401(k) savings programs. The law requires companies to contribute 3 percent of a worker’s salary to a retirement account. Workers will be enrolled in the program unless they choose to opt out.

This is just insane, and I don't remember any public debate on it.  Given that the government already has a forced retirement program with a much higher percentage contribution (Social Security with 16% of wages when including the employer piece), my guess is that this is meant as a bone for or a bailout of Calpers.  Calpers wields enormous political power in the state, and it is entirely believable that they alone are behind this.  Calpers is about to be forced to acknowledge that it is billions short of what it needs to cover future pension obligations because it has been assuming unrealistically high returns form its investments.  Without those high returns, more money needs to be put in the fund to cover public employee pensions that march to ridiculous levels.

I have skimmed the law, and there is nothing in there about what returns will be paid to these new private employees.  My guess is that private contributions will be used as a slush fund to make sure public employees get paid, because they DO have defined benefits, as well as a justification to pay Calpers managers more money.  I can absolutely guarantee that when push comes to shove and Calpers is short of money, private employees will see their benefits rolled back and their contributions going to public employees' pockets.

This is also insane for two other reasons:

  1. In California, there has probably been a zillion lawsuits with the state punishing private entities for running "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" systems.   Having to explicitly opt out to keep ones money is a scam only the government is allowed to get away with
  2. In our company, all but a few of our workers are already retired, working part-time for us to keep busy.  The vast majority of our employees, for example, are on Social Security and many also have private pensions.  So why am I forced to set up all the expensive infrastructure to provide 401K contributions to people who are all drawing down their 401k's?

Bid Rigging for Municipal Asset Management

Rolling Stone Magazine has an good story on the conviction of a number of banks and brokers on charges of bid-rigging, specifically on contracts for short-to-medium term management of municipal bond cash accounts.  Apparently brokers were paid by certain banks to be given a look at all the other bids before they made their final bid.  The article focuses mainly on the ability of winning bidders not to bid any higher than necessary, though I would suppose there were also times when, given this peek, the winning bidder actually raised its bid higher than it might have to ace out other bidders.

This is classic government contracting fraud and it's great to see this being rooted out.  I am not wildly confident it is going to go away, but any prosecutorial attention is welcome.

But I am left with a few questions:

  • It seems that government contracting is more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.  Similar stories have existed for years in state highway contracting, and the municipal bond world has had accusations of kick-backs for years.  Is this a correct perception, or is the rate of fraud between public and private contracting the same but we just notice more with the government because the numbers are larger, the press coverage is greater, and the prosecutorial resources are more robust?
  • If government contracting of this sort is more susceptible to fraud, why, and how do we fix it?

The latter is not an academic question for me.  I run a company that privately operates public recreation areas.  I bid on and manage government contracts.  Frequently, a major argument used against the expansion of such privatization initiatives is that past government outsourcing and contracting efforts have been characterized by fraud and mismanagement.  The argument boils down to "the government has so many management problems that it can't be trusted with contracting for certain services so it needs to operate those services itself."

The only way to reconcile this view is to assume that private actors are more likely to act fraudulently and be dishonest than public employees.  If this were true, then the public would be safer if a public management process of questionable ability were applied towards public employees rather than outside private contractors, because those who were being managed would be less likely to take advantage.  And certainly there are plenty of folks with deep skepticism of private enterprise that believe this.

However, I would offer that only by adopting an asymmetric view of what constitutes fraud would we get to this conclusion.  Clearly, banks colluding to shave a few basis points off municipal asset returns is fraud.     As the author of the Rolling Stone piece puts it several times, the crime here is that the public did not get the best market rate.  So why is, say, elected officials colluding with public employees unions to artificially raise wages, benefits, and staffing levels above market rates not fraud as well?  In both cases insiders are manipulating the government's procurement and political processes to pay more than the market rates for certain services.

This is Bastiat's "seen and unseen" of the privatization debate.   Yes, the world is unfortunately littered with examples of government procurement fraud.  This is often cited as a reason for maintaining the status quo of continued government management of a diverse range of services.  But what we miss, what is unseen, is that these government services are often run with staffing levels, work rules, productivity expectations, and pay rates that would constitute a scandal if uncovered in a division of a corporation, particularly if the workers were spending a lot of money to make sure the manager handing them this largess was able to keep his job.

Yes, the public lost several basis points on its investments when it did not get the market rate of return from cheating bankers.  But it loses as much as 50% of every tax dollar sent to many state agencies because it does not get market rates (and practices) for state labor.

What is a Green Job?

Turns out the guy who gasses up a school bus has a green job.

When Bureau of Labor Statistics Acting Commissioner John Galvin balked on what qualifies as a green job under the agency definition, Issa responded, “Just answer the question.”

“Does someone who sweeps the floor at a company that makes solar panels -- is that a green job?” Issa asked.

“Yes,” replied Galvin, who also acknowledged that a bike-repair shop clerk, a hybrid-bus driver, any school bus driver and “the guy who puts gas in a school bus” are all defined as green jobs.

He also acknowledged that an oil lobbyist, if his work is related to environmental issues, would also have a green job.

It gets better.  Apparently, when I worked at the Exxon refinery in Baytown, TX, I had a green job:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states a green job is either: a business that produces goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or a job in which a worker's duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources

I have never encountered an industrial engineering job anywhere that was not concerned with having their processes use fewer natural resources.

I would argue the greenest of jobs are held by oil and other commodity speculators and traders.  They ensure that prices at all times accurately match our current understanding of the scarcity of each resource.  Without these accurate pricing signals, all efforts to properly invest to use more or fewer of these materials would be impossible.  Just look at the "success" of investments like Solyndra that were made irregardless of these market pricing signals.