Posts tagged ‘management’

Tesla: With the First Domino Tipped Over, It is Just Physics Now

You may not see much Tesla coverage here for a while, despite a lot of breaking news.  Here is why:

The dominoes are all lined up, and that was an interesting story (the dominoes include:  Tesla's poor management of a good product, its lack of adult supervision, its repeated failure to meet targets, its utter contempt for being held accountable to targets, its paranoid worldview, its past near-corrupt actions like the insider SolarCity purchase, Musk's irrational hatred of shorts, its running out of cash without any plan for a capital raise, the fanboys who would eat any dog food Musk served up, etc.)

The first domino has been tipped over (Musk's outright lie that he had funding secured for a $420 buyout when he had not even talked to bankers or his board yet, just to tweak the shorts for a few hours in one day).

Now, I am not sure that I find further falling dominoes that interesting -- after all, it is just inevitable physics at this point.

Note:  The crash is likely to be much slower than at Enron.  Once confidence failed in Enron, the crash came almost at once because Enron was like a large bank that was investing long and borrowing short.  Once the short-term borrowing window was closed for them, it was over.   Tesla can likely make it 6 months before they start scraping bottom and/or their debt covenants.

Update:  For the Tesla fanboys who seem super-excited about the loss of liquidity moving to a private company, here is what being a minor shareholder in a private company is like:

Three of Tinder's co-founders and several other current and former senior executives are suing the dating company's parent organizations, Match Group and IAC. According to a complaint published online, the lawsuit seeks billions of dollars in damages for allegedly manipulating financial information in order to reduce Tinder's valuation and illegally take away employees' stock options.

The complaint explains that Tinder was supposed to be valued in 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021; On those days, employees should have been able to exercise their stock options. Instead, the lawsuit alleges that parent company IAC/Match Group inaccurately lowballed Tinder's valuation in July 2017 at $3 billion, the same as it did two years ago despite the dating app's substantial growth. Then, the parent company secretly merged Tinder into Match Group, which meant employees earned far less in stock options. Then, IAC threatened to terminate anyone who revealed how much the company was actually worth, the lawsuit claims.

My Guesses About $TSLA, and Why @TSLA Shareholder May Be Presented with a Bad Deal

@Elonmusk is facing real blowback for his management buyout by tweet the other day, in particular for two words:  "funding secured."  Many, including myself, doubt he really had tens of billions of dollars of funding secured at the time, particularly since all bankers and likely sources of funding as well as most large Tesla shareholders had never heard of any such transaction when contacted by the media.  The SEC is now looking into this and other Musk corporate communication practices.  If he lied in the tweet, perhaps to get revenge on the short-sellers he hates with an irrational passion, he could be in deep, deep legal poop, up to and including jail.

Let's play a game.  Let's assume he did NOT have funding secured at the time he tweeted this, and now is running scared.  What can he do?  One ace he has is that the board is in his pocket and (I hate to be so cynical about this) will likely lie their asses off to cover Musk.  We already saw the dubious letter the other day, from "members of the board" rather than officially from the board, attempting to provide cover for Musk's tweets.  This is not just a crony thing -- it is entirely rational for the company to defend Musk.  He is, in my opinion, a terrible executive but he is the avatar that drives the fan boys and the stock price.  The day that Musk leaves is the day that the company can really get its operational house in order but it is also the day the stock trades under $75.

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

The problem with this is it would be really a deal being crafted for tens of billions of dollars on a very short timeframe and with limited negotiating leverage (X will know that Musk NEEDS this deal).  As a result, the deal is not likely to be a very good one.  X will demand all sorts of extraordinary provisions, perhaps, for example, a first lien on all Tesla IP and a high breakup fee.  I picture this more like the negotiation for bankruptcy financing, and in fact the IP lien was part of the financing deal Theranos made when it was going down the drain.  But put yourself in Musk's shoes -- jail or bad deal?

And likely his conscience would be clear because this deal would be killed quickly by shareholders.  That would be fine, because the purpose of the exercise would be to keep Musk out of jail, not to actually buy the company.  Tesla shareholders will still get hosed, probably having to pay some kind of break-up fee which any sane investor X would insert as the price for participating in this farce.  And we will go back to the starting point of all this, which is Tesla being public and focusing on operational improvement in what may be the most important operational quarter in its history.

Disclosure:  I have in the past been short Tesla but have no position in it now (I did short when trading reopened the other day after Musk's announcement but covered this afternoon).  I am not in any way, shape, or form giving any financial advice you should spend actual money backing.

Your In-Office Entertainment This Week

UPDATE:  I had the wrong link.  The call is Wednesday but at 2:30 Pacific after the market closes, which makes more sense.  Like many companies, Tesla likes to dump the quarterly financials, dozens of pages in 8 point font, just seconds before the conference call.

If you are sitting in your office this week and need to be entertained in a way that looks like you are working, consider the Tesla investor conference call Wednesday at 2:30 PDT.  I can't guarantee anything but past conference calls have been a circus.  Normally I would expect the Tesla Board or the corporate counsel (who is Musk's divorce lawyer, lol) to bring adult supervision to the party, but so far that has not happened in any Tesla communications to date.  Expect potential discussion around:

  • Tesla's immediate external capital needs, given that they are burning cash faster than you could actually physically burn it (Musk claims zero is needed but everyone else in the free world thinks its >$2 billion, with a huge part of Tesla's existing debt also expiring and needing to be rolled over soon)
  • Model 3 order blacklog (this was the question in the last call that caused Musk to tell the experienced Wall Street analyst to shut up and then he switched to taking questions from a Youtube fanboy
  • Model 3 production rates and quality issues
  • Gross margins.  They HAVE to get higher for survival.  Particularly since Telsa has chosen to eschew traditional dealer networks so corporate bears all the cost of service and support.  This demands Tesla not only get its gross margins as high as other auto makers, they need to be higher.
  • Expiration of tax subsidies -- the $6500 government tax credit for Tesla customers slowly disappears once their 200,000th EV has been sold in the US, which has happened.
  • The disappearance of the $35,000 Model 3 from the web site (this is the promised car that generated a lot of the Telsa hype in the first place)
  • Disappearance of all those other teased products (coupe, semi) that were released to great fanfare and have not ever been mentioned again
  • ZEV credits (these are credits it gets from states like CA that other car makers have to buy to do business in those states with gasoline vehicles).  These are odd ducks as they have a lot of value but for some reasons do not show up anywhere on the balance sheet, so one doesn't know they even exist until Tesla chooses to sell them for a LOT of money.   They can flip a single quarter positive by saving these and exercising them at the same time.  Most folks see this happening in a bid to make Q3 profitable.  (By the way, anyone out there that understands by what accounting rules these valuable assets don't get put on the balance sheet are encouraged to email me the answer).
  • Introduction of competitive products (Jaguar, Volvo, and pretty much everyone else soon)
  • Pending lawsuits from both shareholders and whistle-blowing employees
  • Implosion of SolarCity (now part of Telsa) such that new installations are on a trend line towards zero
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's silencing of critics
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's social media demeanor, including calling the Thai rescue hero a pedophile because he did not use Musk's goofy submarine

Tesla is a train wreck I cannot take my eyes off.  Unlike Theranos, which combined a product that didn't work with a screwed up management, and which operated in the dark, Tesla combines what has been a really good product with a screwed-up management, and operates in an absolute blaze of publicity.  I have never seen any stock where sentiment was so polarized between bears and fan-boy bulls (Herbalife, maybe?)

I have a personal metric of sentiment and volatility I invented but I am pretty sure has been used since before I was born.  Anyway, I look at the sum of the price of an at-the-market put and at-the-market call for the stock about 6 months out.  I then divide this combined price by the share price.  For Tesla January options, this comes to 31%.    This is really a huge number.  Take ExxonMobil, which has a lot of split sentiment right now (a historically fabulous company that keeps screwing up its quarters recently) this metric sits at 9%.

Disclosure:  I am in and out of short positions on TSLA, typically selling around 350+ (usually after Musk has honeytrapped the fan boys) and covering in the 290-300 range (usually after real news or a Musk meltdown).  This strategy has been profitable for 2 years but I think that is coming to an end.  TSLA is either going to fall more or stay high based on what it does in the 3rd quarter.

Wow, Public Schools Must REALLY Suck

The title was my first thought when I saw this over at Kevin Drum's:

The Gates Foundation has spent about $200 million since 2010—in addition to other sources who kicked in about $400 million—on an education initiative designed to increase student performance:

The school sites agreed to design new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporated classroom-observation rubrics and a measure of growth in student achievement. They also agreed to offer individualized professional development based on teachers’ evaluation results, and to revamp recruitment, hiring, and placement. Schools also implemented new career pathways for effective teachers and awarded teachers with bonuses for good performance.

They helped out all teachers; fired bad teachers; promoted good teachers; and paid bonuses to effective teachers. So how did it work out?...

Long story short, there was no improvement at all in student achievement, despite the fact that funding was far greater than it would be in any real-life reform of this nature. There may have been some other successes in this program, but if the ultimate goal is better students, it was a complete failure. Whatever the answer is, rewarding good teachers and firing bad ones sure doesn’t seem to be it.

The organizations around these teachers must really suck because no reasonable person would expect that, in a service business, increasing employee accountability and upgrading the employee base would have no effect on customer service.

I have written before about how bad, senescent organizations destroy the value of good employees.  For example, in the context of the General Motors bankruptcy:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Postscript:  From some experience with private schools, I would say the biggest difference is that private schools set higher expectations.  Even starting in kindergarten, my kids were doing WAY more advanced work than in public schools.  I understand that public schools are public and thus tasked with teaching everyone, so there is pressure to pace the work to the slowest student.  But the slow pace of public school starts even in the early grades before the school reasonably knows who the slowest kids are.  Public schools that have low expectations for student performance are not going to be suddenly improved by better teachers.  Putting Gordon Ramsey behind the counter at a Long John Silver fast food restaurant is not going to make the food suck any less.

The Sales Tax Problem for Small Businesses

I am, perhaps surprisingly to many readers, NOT going to go on a rant about the Supreme Court's decision yesterday that states can collect sales tax on interstate sales over the Internet, at least I am not going to rant about taxing internet sales per se.  Realistically, it was never realistic to think the government would keep its hands off this piggy bank, especially as Internet sales have skyrocketed.  However, this decision creates absolutely enormous practical problems for small businesses and Congress needs to act quickly to mitigate some of these.

The problem is the management problem this presents, particularly for many small retailers, and I don't think most consumers understand this.  Sales taxes seem simple from the consumer point of view -- say your sales tax rate is 7%, the cash register collects 7% and it all seems to be handled automatically.  But even at your local store, things can get complicated.  Your food purchases may well be taxed at a different rate (perhaps even 0%) than your other purchases.  You probably don't notice, but if you go over the city limits into a neighboring town or unincorporated area, the rates may suddenly be different.

Take Arizona, which seems from my experience to be roughly average.  The sales tax rate table is 18 pages long in a small font.  There are 29 separate rate categories which each have different rates in each of Arizona's 15 counties.    My business is in 6 counties and we have 3 rate categories that apply, or 4 if you consider items with no tax as another rate category.  This is 24 different state/county sales tax rates we charge.  But that is the easy part.  Because then there are, in addition to county taxes, 92 different towns and cities that have their own rate tables with up to 29 different rate categories that add to the base state/county rate.  Other states such as Washington (rule of thumb -- if the state has no income tax then it has a LABYRINTHIAN sales and business tax systems) have additional overlay taxes such as for transit and stadium districts.

When my company opens a new location, we have to spend hours on the Internet and with maps trying to figure out what sales taxes to collect, and even with good due diligence we sometimes get it wrong and find in an audit we are actually just inside or outside some line where the rate changes (we once had a location 30 miles outside of Seattle on a long dirt road where we found we had to collect the Seattle Rapid Transit tax).  Thatcher, AZ is a town of like 4000 people but has its own special sales tax rates -- do you know where the town line is?  Well neither do they, because last time I checked they did not have any sort of online lookup system to tell one automatically if the address is inside or outside the town and its sales tax district.

So it's a hassle for my business, but a one time hassle when we open a new location.  Now imagine that you are a small retailer on the internet selling fruit cakes.  You don't go out and establish sales tax locations, in some sense the location comes to you.  John Smith wants to buy a fruitcake and has an address that says Thatcher, AZ, but in the rural world one can easily have a town's name in your address but live outside of the town  (we have a campground with a Grant, Alabama address that is well outside of the city and tax limits of Grant but the town fathers come after us every year or so trying to see why we are not collecting their sales tax).  What sales tax do I collect from this customer?  Is there even a tax on food in that location?  If there is, there might be separate rates (as in California, for example) for prepared vs. packaged food.  What kind of food is my fruitcake?

But it actually gets even worse.  Because now all I have done is collect some amount of tax.  That is the easy part!  The hard part is registering with all the sales tax authorities to collect and pay the tax.  Well, you say, I guess I have to grit my teeth and register 50 times, which I can tell you is a gigantic pain in the ass because every state manages the process differently.

But even after registering in all 50 states, you are STILL not done, because many states don't have a fully unified sales tax collection system.  In Arizona, for example, the larger cities require their own registration and monthly reporting.  Each of these towns in AZ require a separate registration and monthly report:

Apache Junction,
Avondale,
Chandler,
Douglas,
Flagstaff,
Glendale,
Mesa,
Nogales,
Peoria,
Phoenix,
Prescott,
Scottsdale,
Sedona,
Tempe,
Tucson

Douglas, Arizona is a town of freaking 16,000 people but make sales there and you have to have a separate local registration and reporting.  And this list is for one not-very-urban state.  Currently my company does business in 9 states but we are registered and pay sales taxes to about 25 different authorities -- and we are mostly a rural business, so we are not in the larger urban areas that are more likely to have their own sales tax systems.

By the way, you might be thinking, "well, if I am a small business, I can just file with such and such authority in the months I have a sale there." Wrong.  Once you register and file once, you will be expected to file every time, even if they are zero reports.  The one source of relief is some states allow less frequent reporting.  It used to be there were states where I had low volume we filed once a year, but that seems to be a thing of the past.   Most states seem to have a minimum of quarterly reporting, no matter the volume.  Politicians want their money NOW (last sentence should be pronounced using Veruca Salt voice).

This is why businesses tend to have to sign up for very expensive sales tax management services.  But even that is not the end of difficulties, because registering for sales tax in an authority also forces one to register and pay other taxes and fees.  For example, Tennessee has another tax called the state and county business tax, which is essentially a revenue tax.  Even if you are an out of state company, you must file and pay this tax on any revenues.  If you sell in all of TN, that is one additional state registration and 95 different county registrations and 95 different county tax forms  (our company has to do about 8).  But wait, there is more!  Because a business also has to register with any of about 200+ cities in TN for payment of city business tax.  If you are selling all over TN, that is another 200+ registrations and 200+ annual reports (if this seems all very complex in TN, remember that TN has no income tax and note what I said earlier about the sales and business tax systems of states with no income tax).

I have written many times that regulation tends to benefit larger companies at the expense of smaller companies.  Who is more likely to be able to comply in this world I have described, Amazon or the fruitcake company?  Jeff Bezos is turning handsprings today because a) this kills a lot of his competition and b) to survive, many small venders will have to move to larger retailing platforms that can do some of the sales tax work, of which the largest and best is.... Amazon.

Congress needs to act.  It is going to have to be a compromise, because states are going to be putting a lot of pressure to let this situation stand because they want the money.  I would propose a national sales tax system on interstate retail sales that preempts any state sales taxes.  It will be hard to keep it from growing out of hand but it would be nice to establish a principal in law that the tax would be some sort of weighted average of the states' internal sales taxes.  The Feds would add a percent or two for themselves and there would be one registration for all -- as easy for me to do as it is for Bezos.  Yes, I know all the problems with this, but I don't think the status quo is tenable and I don't think Congress has the votes to go back to the old untaxed system, so this is the best we can expect.

Postmortem on SolarCity

Two years ago, I wrote about the acquisition of SolarCity by Tesla.  I thought this represented near-criminal self-dealing at the time and there has been little since to convince me otherwise.  As I wrote then:

This is honestly one of the weirdest acquisition proposals I have seen in a long time:  Elon Musk's Tesla offers to buy Elon Musk's Solar City.

This makes zero business sense to me.    This is from the press release:

We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.

I am sure there are probably some hippy-dippy green types that nod their head and say that this is an amazing idea, but any business person is going to say this is madness.  It makes no more sense than to say GM should buy an oil production company.  These companies reach customers through different channels, they have completely different sales models, and people buy their products at completely different times and have no need to integrate these two purchases.  It is possible there may be some overlap in customers (virtue-signalling rich people) but you could get at this by having some joint marketing agreements, you don't need an acquisition.  Besides, probably the last thing that people's solar panels will ever be used for is charging cars, since cars tend to charge in the garage at night when solar isn't producing.

One might argue that some of the technologies are the same, and I suppose some of the battery and electricity management tech overlaps.  But again, a simple sourcing agreement or a battery JV would likely be sufficient.

So what do these companies share?

I went on to discuss several possible reasons for the deal but settled on this one as the best explanation:

I have no inside information here, but this is the best hypothesis I can put together for this deal.  SolarCity has huge cash needs to continue to grow at the same time its operating margins are shrinking (or getting more negative).  They are having trouble finding investors to provide the cash.  But hey!  Our Chairman Elon Musk is also Chairman of this other company called Tesla whom investors line up to invest in.  Maybe Tesla can be our investor!

The reason I call this two drunks propping each other up is that Tesla also is also burning cash like crazy.  It is OK for now as long as it has access to the capital markets, but if it suddenly lost that, Tesla would survive less than 6 months on what it has on hand.  Remember, SolarCity was a golden child just 3 years ago, just like Tesla is today.  Or if you really don't believe that high-flying companies that depend on access to the capital markets can go belly up in the snap of a finger when they lose their luster with investors, I have one word for you:  Enron.

Essentially, I saw the SolarCity deal as a bailout of Musk's and his friends' and family's investments in SolarCity by Musk-controlled Tesla.  Nothing that has happened since has convinced me this is wrong.  The most prominent evidence has been the dog that never barks -- SolarCity, or Tesla Energy as it is called, is almost never mentioned in conference calls and investor communications by Tesla any more -- certainly the rooftop business is not.  The only thing that ever seems to get a mention are a few big standby battery installations in Australia.   Turns out there was a reason (via Seeking Alpha):

This was a dying business when Tesla bought it an insiders all knew it.

Disclosure:  I tend to short Tesla when it reaches the 350/360 level and cover when it drops into the 200's.

Update:  Here is a great timeline of the whole sorry history of the SolarCity acquisition by Tesla.  This paints an even worse picture than I was aware of.

IHOP And Modern Marketing

The International House of Pancakes announced the other day that they are changing their name to International House of Burgers, or IHOb.   I am 99% certain that this is just a marketing gimmick, a way to get social media buzz, after which they will "as a result of public pressure" go back to the old name.  A sort of intentional version of what Coke did years ago by accident with New Coke.

So far, I would judge it to be successful.  They were talked about on several national radio shows that I listen to (on sports talk radio, no less) and got a day's worth of media coverage (and presumably another day's worth when they change back).  This is a LOT of free advertising for a brand I have heard absolutely nothing about for years (except from my 21-year-old daughter who still makes me take her there from time to time for funny face pancakes.)

Brand strategy has really evolved a lot from when I was in B-school.  In the 1990's my wife was a brand manager at Frito-Lay and brand management at the time seemed incredibly conservative.  There were very defined, tightly-spaced rails that circumscribed what you could do with a brand.  But that is so boring it gets nowhere on social media.  "Fritos! They are... uh... everything they always have been."  This IHOP gimmick (and Budweiser's temporarily changing its name to America) demonstrate a lot less risk-aversion with core brands in a social media era where one has to be outrageous to get attention.

Postscript:  I was in Santa Monica the other day and saw something where they had a really lame, forgettable tag line for the city.  I wanted to help them with some catchier phrases.  Like, "Santa Monica:  World's Nicest Homeless Shelter" or "Santa Monica:  Watch Out For That Scooter!" or "Santa Monica:  You Want HOW MUCH for Rent??"

Travel Report from the Big Island

My wife's cousin is in management of a beautiful resort (Mauna Kea / Hapuna)  on the Kohala coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  I was asking him if it was OK to visit and you can feel the frustration of a resort executive in his reply:

Absolutely ZERO impact from Volcano….

Volcano is 120 miles away and has zero impact on MK. Since it has been rumbling we have had nothing but beautiful sky, perfect air and perfect water temperature.

Web site with air quality… http://www.hiso2index.info/ MK is about the same as Kihei in Maui… Kona occasionally gets not great with some Vog… So Kihei and MK are both at 14 right now. Kona is the worst at 46 on the west side (Still good) Phoenix is at 71; St. Louis right now seems the worst in the nation at 119. Worst are on the Big Island right now is Ocean View a little south west of the lava flows at 82.

Unfortunately, CNN makes it seem like everyone is wearing a gas mask and there is acid rain falling all over the place. The volcano is limited to a tiny area on the south-east coast and all Island in Hawaii and 90% of the big island and all of the Kohala Coast are not impacted. The impact from the Volcano for me is the same as you in Phoenix… ZERO….. Also no matter what it does it will not impact us… It is a shield volcano, not Mt. St. Helene so it can’t blow up and there is not enough lava in the chamber to cause any big issues other than right at its base…

The only time to “pay attention” is if Mauna Loa or Hualalai started to rumble. Both of those could have an impact on the west side of the island.

 

Why Infrastructure is Really "Crumbling" -- It's Unauthorized Borrowing by Government Agencies Against Public Infrastructure

I am mostly going to leave highways out of this post.  Most evidence I have seen is that the numbers do not actually show highway infrastructure to be getting worse.  To the extent highways are underfunded, in my mind it is because gasoline taxes paid by drivers and meant for highway repair and construction have been shifted to grand projects like light rail that get politicians excited but carry at least an order of magnitude fewer passengers per dollar spent than do highways.

But in worlds I am more familiar with - government transit agencies and parks agencies - there has been a real deterioration of infrastructure.   Systems like the Washington Metro clearly are falling apart and most public parks and recreation areas have huge deferred maintenance accounts that are growing every year.  California State Parks and the National Parks Service alone have deferred maintenance tallied well into the tens of billions of dollars.

Most of these agencies will argue the problem is -- wait for it -- that they are underfunded by their legislatures.  But this is not the case in my experience.  My company routinely takes over public parks that some government agency said were too expensive to remain open and profitably reopens them to the public -- not only keeping up with the maintenance but paying to catch up on all the maintenance the agency let slide when it was operating the park.

The problem is that most agencies, whatever their stated public purpose and mission, tend to be run for the benefit of their employees.  I understand some but not all the reasons for this, but it is simply an observable fact that this happens time and time again.  This means that the priority is to build up large staffs with good pay and large benefits and retirement packages.   Worse, the preference is usually to build up headquarters and administrative staff, rather than staff that actually does stuff like serve the public or fix things.  When cutbacks need to occur, the priority order always is: cut maintenance first; cut field staff actually doing useful things second; cut administrative staff only in case of the apocalypse; cut benefits packages never.

Deferred maintenance is the way that agency's can borrow without transparency and without any outside authorization to do things like maintain staff in the face of cutbacks.  In effect, the agency is borrowing against the infrastructure the public has built to help fund staffing levels and benefits.  What is deferred maintenance?  It is all kind of things.  It is having one out of three toilets in a bathroom break and just roping it off rather than fixing it.  It is allowing potholes to multiply in the road without repair.  It is constantly chasing more and more leaks in an underground water line and not just replacing it.  It is an acknowledgement that all manmade things have a fixed life.   Take picnic tables.  Let's say a type of picnic table in a campground, of which there might be hundreds, lasts about 10 years.  That means a responsible person should budget to replace 10% every year.  But what if we skip a year?  No one will probably notice if some old tables slide from 10 to 11 years old, and we save some money.  But really we are only borrowing that money, because we will need to do twice as many next year.  But then we do it again the next year, to borrow more, and the bill just increases for the future.  Before you know it, the NPS has $12 billion in deferred maintenance, a $12 billion debt for which there is little transparency and no legislative approval -- and the interest on which all of us in the public pay when we have to live with these deteriorating public facilities.

I have written about this many times, but here is what I wrote about Arizona State Parks several years ago:

At every turn, [Former Arizona State Parks Director Ken] Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

Arizona State Parks has a new Director, but its the same old story.  They have complained about deferred maintenance in the parks for years, but when times are good (and I can tell you all of us in public recreation are having visitation records the last few years) they use the extra money to add headquarters staff and pay headquarters staff more.

State Parks, which receives no state general-fund money, saw a record 2.78 million visitors come to its parks for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The agency generated nearly $17.9 million largely from park fees, another record.

The result: Black has been generous with pay for people she has brought on staff. Some salaries are up to 32 percent higher than what her predecessor paid for the same positions. And she has approved raises of up to 25 percent for some carry-over staff as more money rolls into the agency's coffers....

Meanwhlile, records show [former director Bryan] Martyn's top two deputies were paid $110,250, while Black pays her top assistant $142,000 — 29 percent more. Black brought in a new development chief at nearly $105,000, a 32 percent bump over what the position paid under Martyn.

Black also boosted the pay of the natural-resources chief, who also worked for Martyn, by 25 percent, to $84,000 a year.

State Parks payroll records show Martyn, around the time he left, had 41 staffers making more than $50,000 [incredibly this is apparently personal staff, not the total headquarters staff]. Black had 58 staff members in March making more than $50,000. Black also brought in staff at higher salaries than what Martyn paid, giving some holdovers significant raises.

An agency spokeswoman said Parks is increasingpay to recruit and retain talent, and staffers are dealing with more visitors.

Black said she also has increased the pay of those in the field.

So, as we see some really good years in public recreation, Arizona State Parks is using the extra money to pay staff rather than address fundamental infrastructure issues.   Anyone want to guess what will happen when the next downturn comes?  Will administrative pay be cut?  Will headquarters staff be cut?  Or will maintenance be cancelled and parks closed?  Place your bets.

When companies or other entities get into debt holes they cannot climb out of, their debt is restructured and perhaps partially forgiven or even bailed out, but rules are put in place to ensure more responsible financial behavior in the future.  The same needs to be true of infrastructure spending.  These agencies got themselves into the deferred maintenance holes they are in.  They cannot get out without a bailout, but we should understand that it is a bailout of these agencies and there need to be conditions attached to the funding tied responsible maintenance spending by the agency itself.

Apparently Democrats Applied Blue-State Model To Their Own Finances

I really thought this article (editorial? letter?) by Donna Brazille in Politico was fascinating.  First, it is not that often that partisans of either flavor air their internal dirty laundry in public.  And second, it is a pretty interesting story.  Apparently Obama left the party deeply in debt (that is probably not unusual after a campaign, since politicians do the same thing with public budgets when they actually hold office).  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz "had outsourced a lot of the management of the party and had not been the greatest at fundraising" and thus was doing little to pay down the debt.   Eventually, Wasserman-Schultz and a few other party leaders turned to the Clinton campaign to bail them out, which they did -- over a year before the convention when Clinton became the actual Democratic nominee -- in exchange for an agreement that:

Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.

Apparently Wasserman-Schulz could not be reached for comment in her current location under the bus.

The Irony and Internal Contradiction of Passive Investment Management

My relatively snarky post on hedge fund fees and passive management got a lot of response, including a few of challenging emails from friends and acquaintances.  So I wanted to cover a few followups here.

One of the interesting features of passive investment management is that it doesn't work if everyone does it.  I vaguely remember there is some name for this in the game theory world but I can't for the life of me remember.  Anyway, passive investment is based on the theory that the market for financial products is relatively transparent and efficient.  While one stock will certainly perform better than another, it is almost impossible (or at least really expensive) in a mostly-efficient market for a regular investor, or even an average fund manager, to parse this out.  As a  result, high fees or expenses one might incur to find these opportunities generally don't pay for themselves, and it is better to just invest in a broad basket of securities and accept the average market return.

But note that this is predicated on the assumption that someone, somewhere is actively managing.  Someone must be looking for good stocks and bad stocks and buying the former and selling the latter.  Without these folks actively managing, it would not be an efficient market.  [I am reminded at this point of the old joke about a man walking down the street with an economist.  The economist steps right over a $100 bill on the sidewalk without stopping.  The man asks the economist, "why didn't you stop and pick up that money?" and the economist answers, "in an efficient market it can't really be there."]

I remember a while back reading economic research about shopping.  What percentage of customers have to be active price-shoppers to make a market efficient?  I personally don't price shop for the small stuff.  If I need a bunch of cheap bulk stuff, I just run to Wal-Mart or Costco and buy it with confidence I am getting a pretty good price.  But why can I do that?  Because I trust these large corporations to honor their promise for low prices?  Hah!  No way.  What I trust is that there are people who clip coupons and price every dang item to the penny, and it is these folks who keep Costco and Walmart honest.  Government interventionists like to talk about the free rider problem all the time, but most all of us are free riders on these hard core shoppers.

The same is true with us passive investors.   I like to get snarky about the fees certain active investors charge, but I am still dependent on their work.  And I don't particularly doubt that there are hedge funds and private equity firms that make consistently above market returns, but I do think they are a minority.  I would equate it to max-contract players in the NBA.  No one doubts Lebron James merits a max contract -- any of the teams in the NBA would sign that deal in five seconds.  But a max deal for, say, Chandler Parsons?  Joakim Noah?  The problem with hedge funds is that the few of these folks who merit the two and twenty max contract have very likely been closed to new investors for years, in the same way it is impossible to get LeBron James to play for Memphis.  It is frustrating for me to see public and private institutions chasing yield and continuing to pay 2 and 20 to folks with an unproven algorithm and a marketing plan.  If I am going to pay 2 and 20, its more likely to be to someone in private equity or an LBO fund who is doing more than stock picking.  That's because I do think that stocks are generally well-valued on the market based on their current management, investment plans, culture, etc.  But they may contain opportunities for smart people who can come in and, for example, apply different management and culture and strategy to the people and assets.  A box that is half Kale and half candy corns might not sell for a good price because no one wants the combination, so value can be created splitting it up.

A couple of other thoughts that came up in discussions since yesterday:

  • I am willing to believe that passive investing looks so good vis a vis active investing because central banks have inflated assets and compressed volatility.  If all the boats are rising with the tide of state actions that are raising the tide, then one is less likely to be fussy about which boat he is on.  What's the point of value investing when the market treats stocks as commodities?  But I can certainly see that in markets like the late 70's or pre-market-boom early 80's that stock pickers might have had more room to differentiate themselves.
  • I am also willing to concede that passive investing may turn out to be a terrible trend for corporate governance.  If all your shareholders are just holding your stock as part of a basket of 500 stocks, who is going to hold you accountable?  It is very awkward for a Vanguard agitate for changes in a company, even when they might be the largest single shareholder.  Also, ironically, passive investing may be opening the door for single lone wolf activist investors to impose their will on companies, sometimes to the other shareholders' detriment.  If one person with 5% cares a lot and the other 95% are passive, that one person might be able to raise a lot of hell.

As a final note, I am a screaming hypocrite on the whole passive investing thing, since with most of my net worth I am the ultimate in active investors.  I have most of my savings in one company, the one I run.

Are You Smarter Than A Public Pension Fund Manager

From the WSJ:

Some $333 billion moved into all U.S.-listed ETFs [exchange traded funds] in 2017 through September, a figure that eclipses last year’s $288 billion all-time high with three months yet to be tallied, according to Morningstar.

Of that amount, 73% has gone into ETFs that boast expense ratios less than or equal to 0.2%, or $20 per $10,000 invested, according to Morningstar data through September. Such low-fee funds account for just 15% of the more than 2,000 exchange-traded funds and notes on the market....

The market for low-cost funds, long dominated by BlackRock, Vanguard Group and State Street Global Advisors, is getting increasingly crowded as other players attempt to muscle in. State Street last month slashed management fees on more than a dozen of its funds. Franklin Templeton Investments, a unit of Franklin Resources, this week announced 16 ultra-low-cost foreign stock ETFs that will undercut the management fees of nearly every rival product currently on the market.

“It’s become insanely competitive,” said Ben Johnson, head of ETF research at Morningstar.” Mr. Johnson said that advisers and other intermediaries are feeling the pressure to emphasize the lowest prices available. “This has upped the ante for providers of products that have really been commoditized.”

If you are a typical investor, you too are likely investing in lower-cost funds, and for most of us that is a great choice.  But large public pension funds are still the #1 largest investors in hedge funds, whose absurd 2 and 20 (2% of the assets invested, 20% of the gains, 0% of the losses) fee schedules still exist, incredibly, despite their systematic under-performance of the market.  I have always wondered how these fees don't get competed down.  But beset by under-funding, public pension funds are so desperate for yield to try to close the gap that they will still fall for the hedge fund pitch.  Which is why your local public teacher pension fund probably helped build a number of the mansions in Greenwich.  You do have to sort of respect folks who figured out a financial model for profiting in direct proportion to government fecklessness.  Talk about hitting the mother load!

Media Matters Provides A Great Reason to Defund Public Television

In response to PBS's airing of Andrew Coulson's pro-school-choice documentary, Brett Robertson of Media Matters writes:

Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?

Well, if public funding means that PBS should not air anything critical of public institutions, its time to end the public funding.  Robertson simply confirms what critics have been saying for years, that public funding makes PBS an agent of the state, and there is not much we need less today than state-sponsored television**

 

** I will add that I watch way more PBS than the average person and donate to it every year.  I often don't agree with their editorial policy and if it really ticked me off enough I suppose I would stop donating.  My opposition to state funding of PBS has nothing to do with my enjoying its product.  Ironically, I actually think that it might be worse without state funding because I think the shaming about lack of balance that goes with the funding tends to put a small brake on its management's tendency to go hard Left.  But that is irrelevant to the principle that state-funded media is a bad idea.

Janet Napolitano Could Be In Big Trouble

Audit shows Napolitano's office hiding funds from the legislature

The University of California hid a stash of $175 million in secret funds while its leaders requested more money from the state, an audit released on Tuesday said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the audit found that the secret fund ballooned due to UC Office of the President overestimating how much is needed to run the school system that includes 10 campuses in the state. Janet Napolitano, the former Department of Homeland Security chief, is in charge of the school system.

Napolitano denied the audit’s claim. She reportedly said the money was held for any unexpected expenses. Her office also denied the amount in the fund.

Pretty much the entire management team of California Sate Parks got fired for doing almost the exact same thing, with the exact same excuses

California state parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her second-in-command was fired Friday after officials discovered the department has been sitting on "hidden assets" totalling [sic] nearly $54 million.

The money accumulated over 12 years in two special funds the department uses to collect revenue and pay for operations: $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.

The money accumulated, state officials said, because the parks department had a pattern of under-reporting the actual size of the funds in its regular dealings with the state Department of Finance.

Ms. Coleman (who I worked with a few times and liked) was frankly an easier "kill" because, while long tenured in the state parks job, she really did not have a lot of political muscle.  Napolitano does.  Relying on consistent standards would say Napolitano should go, but government has never been about applying consistent standards, only power.  So we shall see.

Professional Sports Leagues Are Sucking Maws for Subsidies

Forbes produces an annual list of the market value of various sports franchises.  If I were a grad student, a great study would be to try to figure out what percentage of these valuations came from public funds (free stadiums, tax abatements, direct subsidies, etc).  I bet the number would be high.

In the case of the Phoenix Coyote's hockey team, the percentage would actually be over 100%.   The team is worth barely $100 million, at best, but has received hundreds of millions in subsidies.  About 13 years ago the city of Glendale, AZ (pop: 250,000) built them a $300 million stadium.  Almost immediately after that, the team started to threaten to leave, and the pathetic city of Glendale city counsel voted subsidy after subsidy, paying the team $10 million a year in direct subsidies.  When the Goldwater Institute successfully sued to end this practices, the city found creative ways to hide the subsidy, for example giving the team a management contract for the stadium whose price was inflated by the amount of the subsidy (the contract was for $15 million a year but when it was finally competitively bid, it came in at $5 million).

After all that, the team apparently has no shame is coming back to the trough yet again:

The Arizona Coyotes and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday threatened to move the franchise out of Arizona if the Legislature does not approve $225 million in public financing for a new arena in downtown Phoenix or the East Valley.

Bettman sent a three-page letter to state Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard encouraging them to push through a public-financing bill that is stalled in the Senate amid a lack of support from lawmakers. The struggling NHL franchise wants out of Glendale, saying it's not economically viable to play there even though that West Valley city financed its 13-year-old Gila River Arena specifically for the Coyotes.

"The Arizona Coyotes must have a new arena location to succeed," Bettman wrote. "The Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale."

Good God, what brass!

Postscript:  I was immediately embarrassed to see that I had use maw's instead of maws.  I make stupid grammar mistakes but this generally is not one of them I make that often.  Unfortunately, on the road, I had no way to fix it. Fixed now.

Do Toner Cold Calls Really Sell Any Toner?

Every entrepreneur, I think, has his or her weird ticks.  One of mine is that I answer the main phone for our office here.  Granted, there are only a couple of us here (99.5% of our parks management people are actually in the parks, something that differentiates us from the government agencies we work with).  But answering the phone and sometimes directing calls is one way I sort of keep on top of what is going on.

Anyway, one result of this is I personally hear all the spam calls that come to our company,  of which calls to sell us merchant (ie credit card) processing services and to sell us toner are by far the most common.

Since I assume rational behavior by whatever firm is paying these people to make calls, I suppose they must get results.  But that amazes me.  Does some business after the 27th call asking to speak to the person who buys toner suddenly wake up and say, "Sure, send me some toner!" on the 28th call?  Ditto on merchant services.  In fact, though I put toner in the headline, merchant services amaze me even more as they are likely much closer to a buying company's core customer service processes than is printer toner.   Do people really buy based on cold calls?  I suppose they must.

It has been observed to me that this is just like the Nigerian email scam -- people are amazed folks still try this.  But in my mind it is different.  With an email scam, the costs are virtually zero so it costs nothing to spam zillions of people on the off chance one might be a hit.  For business sales, though, there has to be more of a cost to spam people.  (By the way, for this reason I proposed long ago that a tenth of a cent per email charge would end most spam and phishing.

To Students Interested in Free-Market Environmentalism

I have done a lot of work with PERC on free market approaches to public land management and environmental issues.  It is a great group, and I have participated a couple of times in their summer programs.  They are currently accepting applications for their 2017 summer programs.

The Power of Taxes To Bend Behavior, Often in Unexpected Ways

Taxes are incredibly powerful things.  Tax something and you will get less of it.  But you might also get more of something you did not expect.  Taxes are the king of generating unintended consequences.  A huge part of human ingenuity (unfortunately) seems to be constantly geared towards evading taxes.  This is one reason I favor completely eliminating the corporate income tax -- way too many otherwise productive resources are marshaled towards managing the consequences of these taxes.

Last weekend I was in Cabo visiting a few friends and practicing my Spanish.  Many of the buildings in town (at least away from the resort areas) look like this:

This is a small retail commercial building with going concerns on the first floor (actually finished pretty nicely) but rebar and stuff sticking up from what looks like an unfinished second floor.   This is just one of many, many buildings that look like this.  My friend, who has run a resort in Cabo for decades, asked me what I thought was going on.  I said I assumed it was some sort of third world thing, perhaps a lack of financing that meant the first floor has to operate to generate cash flow for the second floor.

He answered that yes, there was very little financing for small business and real estate development so that sort of thing did happen.  But what was really going on here is tax management.  Until construction is completed, this structure is taxed as raw land rather than as a valuable commercial building.  It was typical practice to get approved for a two story building in the original plans, then stop construction after completing the first floor (which was all that was wanted anyway) and act like the building is still under construction.  Wala Voila (ed: lol, oops) -- ugly building but hefty tax reduction.

For those of you who want to write this off as a third world phenomenon, I will offer a similar example from personal experience.  Some years ago, because I did not have enough value-destroying investments in my life, I bought some raw land in Hawaii.  It is actually in a gated community, about half-built-out, but if you drive past my land you will likely see a cow on it.  What is a cow doing in a gated community on residential land?  Well, that is the point.  Without the cow, the land gets taxed as residential land.  With the cow, the land gets taxed as ranch land at perhaps a tenth the rate.  The homeowners association helps those of us with raw land to split the cost of the cows.

Update:  Here are the Hawaiian cows, next to one of my neighbor's front gate.  While they are more attractive than the exposed rebar on the building in Cabo, they serve the same purpose.

Why We Need School Choice, in One Chart

In 1973, when Ford was rolling out such losers as the Pinto and the Mustang II, would the cars have been any better if the Ford designers had, say, a budget twice as large?  Or would the same people have continued to roll out the same bad cars, just more expensively, until competition from Japan and Europe forced American car makers to get their act together?

If you have not been to a Sears store lately, and you have lots of company.  If you do not shop at Sears, think about why.  Now, imagine that Sears were to double the number of employees in their local store.  Would that change your mind and suddenly send you into the store to shop?  No?

There are times when everything about an organization is broken -- its management, its culture, its strategy.  These organizations may have perfectly good people in them -- I have no doubt that the folks at Ford in the 1970's were capable people, as are the employees at my local Sears store.   I call all these factors "organizational DNA".  This is from years ago about a corporate example, but the same is true of any organization:

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

I would argue that public schools in many parts of the country are in this situation.  Any organization can become senescent with value-killing DNA, but this process happens much more rapidly when there is no competition, as has been the case for public schools which have enjoyed a virtual monopoly enforced by the government (you can go to a competing school but you still have to pay for the government school you are not using).

If I am right, then the last thing you would expect to help is simply pouring more money into the same management, the same culture, the same organizational DNA.  But that is exactly what we have done.  That has been our lead strategy for 35 years, and still remains the preferred strategy of the Left.  Via Mark Perry:

Despite this history, President Obama's strategy was to throw even more money at the schools, and again it did not work:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work. “Think of what all that money could have been spent on instead.”

One will hear that criticism of public schools in unfair because they have all these great teachers in them.  Examples will be cited.   I say:  "Exactly!"  That is why change is needed.  Public schools are hiring good people and putting them in an organization and system where they deliver poor results.  Let's liberate this talent.

By the way, one of the misconceptions about school choice is that it necessarily means the end of public schools.  I find this an unlikely outcome, at least in most areas.  Competition from Japan meant that Ford lost some of its customers to Toyota, but it also meant that Ford became a lot better.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Language Learning

I went to a good private school (Kinkaid in Houston, if anyone knows it).  I didn't really know how good it was until I went to an Ivy League college and found I was ahead of most of the other students in most every subject.  The thing  I thank Kinkaid for more than anything is that we had to write -- and write, and write.  Every test was an essay test.  By the time I was 18, I could write a well-organized and reasonably coherent (but not well-proofed, as readers will know!) five paragraph persuasive essay in my sleep.   (My ability to communicate was not really advanced at all in college, and I only began to learn more about persuasive, organized communication when I joined McKinsey & Co. and was taught the pyramid principle).

Anyway, that is all background to my one gripe about primary school -- I hated language learning.  Hated it.  I took Spanish from Kindergarten through the 11th grade, but counted the years and months and days to when I could quit.  From when I was 18 until I was about 45, I never had any desire to learn another word of any language again.

But about 10 years ago I picked up a Pimsleur language course (Italian, I think) and I loved it.  Knowing some Italian really enhanced my trip to Italy.  From there on, I have been studying a number of languages.

I want to pause for a minute and reflect on why I hated language learning so much in school but like it now.  It could just be a function of age -- I was bored stiff plowing through Les Miserables in high school but re-read it as an adult and loved it.  But I think there is a bigger problem:  I think schools suck at teaching languages.  My kids, who generally love learning and are good at school, hated language class.  My guess is that people just want to be able to converse, which is what courses like Pimsleur are geared towards.  When I go to Florence, I want to be able to order dinner in Italian and talk to the shopkeepers.   But in high school we seemed to spend a lot of time learning two (!) forms of the pluperfect subjunctive in Spanish.  Great for the AP, but my guess is that the bartender in Barcelona is going to give you a pass for messing up the subjunctive.  "If I were to have a beer, how much would it have cost me yesterday and  how much might if have cost if I had come tomorrow instead?"

So I have taken about 60 hours each of Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin.    I seem to be able to remember them all in deep memory but I can only hold one other language in my short-term, immediately-available recall buffer.  So I have to do 5-6 hours of one of these again before I go to the country to shift that language into the top of the memory heap.

I like the Pimsleur approach, which is pure auditory (which matches how I learn, I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read).  The courses use an approach called spaced repetition that works well for me, and must work for others given that these courses, which are pretty old and predate all the new Internet tools, are still quite popular.  The one oddity about them is that they almost never explain any points of grammar.  For example, they really don't explain the rules of verb conjugation.  You are expected to figure out the rules as you go based on the examples -- essentially you back into the rules based on use.  This works pretty well, though certain situations can drive English speakers crazy.  For example, we are not used to having a command form of verb conjugations, as Spanish and Italian have, so I have seen folks get confused for a while when the verb in "You can come with me" and "Come with me" are conjugated differently.   At some point one needs more structure for grammar, which means I almost always buy a basic grammar book and one of those 501 verb conjugation books for each language I do on Pimsleur.

People always ask me which languages were easiest and hardest.  The answer is that it depends.  Each have hard and easy parts.  Here are a few thoughts on each (all from an English-speaker's perspective):

  • Spanish and Italian are incredibly similar, so similar it can be confusing knowing both, as I forget exactly which word is which when their words for something are very similar.  Both have a lot of borrow words in common with English and have sentence structures and word order reasonably similar to English (except for having adjectives follow rather than precede nouns).  Like other romance languages, they have gendered nouns which are unfamiliar to English speakers and generally I find gendered nouns add complexity without any really gain in meaning.   I consider both Spanish and Italian to be easy languages for an English speaker to learn.  In terms of which of the two is easiest, I have studied Spanish since I was 4 so I can't really be unbiased here, and they are similar in many ways.  Spanish plurals are more natural to English speakers, and I think management of adjectives with the genders is a bit easier and it seems to be more regular.  Italian verb tenses are a bit easier, without as much complexity in past tenses as there are in Spanish.  Overall, though, both are fun and easy to learn.
  • German is a mixed bag but was generally a lot harder for me to learn.   If you hate the two genders in Romance languages, you are going to love having three (!) in German.  German has pretty rigid rules about sentence order which in many cases will be unnatural to English speakers.  For example, there are certain types of sentences where the verb goes at the very end, after everything else (something Mark Twain made fun of).  When you have a list of adverbs or prepositional phrases in a sentence, there is a correct order for them (e.g. time before place).  In English we would consider "I ate in the kitchen in the morning" and "I ate in the morning in the kitchen" to be equally OK but not so in German.  The articles and possessive pronouns not only have different forms based on the 3 genders of the noun, but there are different forms if the noun is in different parts of a sentence, eg the direct or indirect object.  I found myself having to diagram each sentence and plan it out in my head before I let it come out of my mouth.  I can say a fair amount in German, but it never became natural.  The good news about German is that pronunciation is very regular, though there are a few sounds you have to learn to make that we don't have in English.  There are a ton of borrow words, so a lot of vocabulary comes easily.  And verb conjugation is pretty straightforwards, with what seems to be fewer cases in use than in, say, Spanish (never learned a future tense and no special command tense, though I suppose one could be snarky and say all German verbs are in command form.)
  • Mandarin is a mixed bag but it may surprise English speakers that it is easy in some ways.  First the hard parts:  Speaking it is really hard for a westerner, as every sound has at least four possible tones, plus variations such as falling  and rising.  I am a terrible singer and believe I would have done much better at Mandarin if I were good at music, since the hitting the tones right felt a lot like singing to me.   The other hard part about Mandarin is the almost complete and total lack of borrow words.  Every single word is new and unfamiliar.  But there are aspects that are surprisingly easy, such as basic grammar.  There are no gendered nouns, there are really no plurals, and within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation -- For example the form of "to be" for I, you, she, they are all the single same word.  Many things from numbers to prepositions are very logical, in some ways almost like it was designed by a group of scientists.  Past tenses are also surprisingly easy to form.  There are a few quirks, like special count words -- it is not just one beer, but one count of beer, and the word for "count" changes whether you are counting beers or people or something else.  But all in all, a very easy language to learn -- if it were not such a royal pain in the butt to pronounce for westerners.

By the way, I find that being able to speak the languages has different value depending on the language.  People in Italy and Spanish-speaking countries are just absurdly delighted if you can speak any of their language -- there is a big payback in goodwill.  Also, it is far easier in Italy or Latin American (than, say, in Germany) to find oneself in a place where no one speaks English.  In Germany, the homeless people speak better English than my German.  When I insisted on trying to use German, the Germans were generally willing to let me try but you could just see their impatience, knowing they could have finished the exchange two minutes earlier in English.  Mandarin turned out to be a virtual non-starter.  I just did not have enough experience conversing with natives to be comprehensible.  Also, it was easy to run into many other dialects, or other languages like Cantonese.  Others have reported that many Chinese hate when Westerners try to speak Mandarin and will pretend not to understand it -- I can't confirm or deny this, though my Chinese exchange student loves it when I try to speak Mandarin.

Postscript:  Mark Twain on German:

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Much more here.   I would swear I saw a quote from Twain that said he had read a whole book in German but did not know what was happening until he got to all the verbs on the last page, but I can't find the quote.

Failing Government Managers Are Never Fired, They Are Just Moved (Or Even Promoted)

After the scandalous management practices in the Phoenix VA which were proved to sacrifice patient well-being, and even patient lives, in favor of artificially pumping up managers' metrics and bonuses, someone with experience in the private sector might have expected the agency to clean house.  Hah!

First, Congress rewarded the failing VA with more budget and headcount, the very things that motivate most government managers.

Now, the VA has assigned what appears to be their worst manager from a tiny, overseas branch of the agency to run the sensitive Phoenix office.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has named a new director to its beleaguered Phoenix VA Medical Center, and the decision instantly came under fire because the appointee left a previous hospital leadership post after it got the lowest satisfaction rating of any facility in the VA system.

RimaAnn Nelson, who most recently headed a tiny VA clinic in the Philippines, is expected to take charge of a Phoenix VA Health Care System that was the epicenter of a national crisis over its treatment of veterans. She is the seventh director during the past three years to enter a revolving leadership door at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center....

Nelson, who began her career as a nurse, was sent to the Philippines in 2013 after a series of incidents under her leadership at the VA St. Louis Health Care System. The Daily Caller, a non-profit, investigative news organization, said the incidents included two closures of the hospital due to medical safety issues, and potential exposure of HIV to hundreds of veterans.

How is this person even still employed, much less being rewarded with a larger, more responsible post?

In Defense of Profits -- Why They Are At Least As Moral as Wages

Quick background:  my company privately operates public parks, making our money solely from the entry fees voluntarily paid by visitors and campers.  We don't get paid a single dollar of tax money.

A major partner of ours is the US Forest Service (USFS), which actually operates more recreation sites than any other agency in the world (the National Park Service has a higher profile and the Corps of Engineers has more visitors, but the USFS is the most ubiquitous).  Despite the USFS being an early pioneer of using private companies to reduce the operating costs of parks and campgrounds, the USFS still has a large number of employees opposed to what we do.  The most typical statement I hear from USFS employees that summarizes this opposition -- and it is quite common to hear it -- is that "It is wrong to make a profit on public lands."

It would be hard to understate the passion with which certain USFS employees hold to this belief.   I discovered, entirely accidentally through a FOIA request my trade group had submitted to the USFS, that a Forest Supervisor in California (a fairly senior person in the USFS management structure) whom I have never met or even had a conversation with circulated emails through the agency about how evil he thought I was.

This general distaste for profit, which is seen as "dirty" in contrast to wages which are relatively "clean" (at least up to some number beyond which they are dirty again), is not limited to the USFS or even to government agencies in general, but permeates much of the public.  As a result, I thought I would describe a conversation I had with a USFS manager (actually this is the merger of two conversations).  The conversation below had been going on for a while discussing technical topics, and we will pick it up when the District Ranger makes the statement highlighted above (a District Ranger is the lowest level line officer in the USFS, responsible in some cases for the land management functions of an area the size of a county.  I have cleaned up the text (I am sure the sentences would not be as well-formed if I had a transcript) but I think this captures the gist of it:

Ranger:  I think it's wrong that you make a profit on public lands

Me:  So you work for free?

Ranger:  Huh?

Me:  If you think it's wrong to make money on public lands, I assume you must volunteer, else you too would be making money on public lands

Ranger:  No, of course I get paid.

Me:  Well, I know what I make for profit in your District, and I have a good guess what your salary probably is, and I can assure you that you make at least twice as much as me on these public lands.

Ranger:  But that is totally different.

Me:  How?

At this point I need to help the Ranger out.  He struggled to put his thoughts on this into words.  I will summarize it in the nicest possible way by saying he thought that while his wage was honorable, my profit was dishonorable, or perhaps more accurately, that his wage paid by the government was consistent with the spirit of the public lands whereas my profit was not consistent

Me:  I'm not sure why.  My profit is similar to your wage in that it is the way I get paid for my effort on this land -- efforts that are generally entirely in harmony with yours as we are both trying to serve visitors and protect the natural resources here.    But unlike your wage, my profit is also a return on the investment I have made.  Every truck, uniform, and tool we use comes out of my profit, whereas you get all the tools you need paid for by your employer above and beyond your salary.  Further, your salary is virtually guaranteed to you, short of some staggering malfeasance.  Even if you do a bad job you likely would just get shunted to a less interesting staff position at the same salary, rather than fired.   On the other hand if I do a bad job, or if one of my employees slips up, or even if some absolutely random occurrence entirely outside my control occurs (like, say, a flood that closes our operations) my profit can completely evaporate, or even turn into a loss.  So like you, I get paid for my efforts here on public lands, but I have to take risk and make investments that aren't required of you.  So what about that makes my profit less honorable than your wage?

Ranger:  Working on public lands should be a public service, not for profit

Me:  Well, I think you are starting to make the argument again that you should be volunteering and not taking a salary.  But leaving that aside, why is profit inconsistent with service to the public?  My company serves over 2 million visitors a year, and 99.9% give us the highest marks for our service.  And for the few that don't, and complain about a bad experience, every one of those complaints comes to my desk and I personally investigate them.  Do you do the same?

Why do I make such an effort?  Part of it is pride, but part is because I understand that my margins are so narrow, if even 5% of those visitors don't come back next year -- because they had a bad time or they saw a bad review online -- I will make no money.  Those 2 million people vote with their feet every year on whether they think I am adequately serving the public, and their votes directly affect how much money I make.  Do you have that sort of accountability for your public service?

Postscript:  Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the government ranger did not bring up what I would consider the most hard-hitting challenge:  How do we know your profits are not just the rents from a corrupt, cronyist government contracting process.  Two things let me sleep well at night on this question.  The first is that I know what lobbying I do and political connections I have (zero on both) so I am fully confident I can't be benefiting from cronyism in the competitive bid process for these concession contracts.  Of course, you don't know that and if our positions were reversed, I am pretty sure I would be skeptical of you.

So the other fact I have in my favor, which is provable to all, is that the recreation areas we operate are run with far lower costs and a demonstrably higher level of service than the vast majority of recreation areas run by the government itself.  So while I can't prove I didn't pull some insider connections to get the work, I can prove the public is far better off with the operation of these parks in private hands.

Perfect Example of Blaming the Free Market for Government Interventions

Hillary Clinton, along with many politicians and most of the media, is arguing that the recent large price increase in Epipens is some sort of market failure requiring government intervention to solve.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray over rapid price increases for the EpiPen, a life-saving injection for people who are having severe allergic reactions.

Mrs. Clinton called the recent price hikes of the EpiPen “outrageous, and just the latest example of a company taking advantage of its consumers.”

In a written statement calling for Mylan to scale back EpiPen prices, Clinton added, “It’s wrong when drug companies put profits ahead of patients, raising prices without justifying the value behind them.”

Why aren't similar government interventions required to curb greed in the pricing of paint, or tacos, or toilet paper?  Because the markets are allowed to operate and competitors know that if they raise prices too high, their existing competitors will take sales from them, and new competitors may enter the market.  The reason this is not happening with Epipens is that the Federal government blocks other companies from competing with Mylan for the Epipen business with a tortuous and expensive and pointless regulatory process (perhaps given even more teeth because Mylan's CEO has a lot of political pull).  The MSNBC article fails to even mention why Mylan has no competition, and in fact essentially assumes that Epipens are a natural monopoly and should be treated as such, despite the fact that there are 3 or 4 different companies that have tried (and failed) to clear the regulatory process over the last several years with competing products.  Perhaps these other companies would have been smarter to appoint a Senator's daughter to a senior management position.

Hillary Clinton is proposing a dumb government intervention to try to fix some of the symptoms of a previous dumb government intervention.  It would be far better to work the root cause instead.

Postscript:  Credit Vox with the stupid argument of the day:  

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care – but not other products, like phones or cars – because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product, they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

Hmm, let me pick a slightly different example -- food.  I will substitute that into the Vox comment.   I think it would be perfectly correct to say that there is not price regulation of food in the US, and that "If consumers can’t afford [food], they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying."  In fact, the best place today to face high odds of dying due to lack of food is Venezuela, where the government heavily regulates food prices in the way Vox wished to regulate drugs prices.

Example of the Impact of Minimum Wages on Consumer Prices

I thought folks might be interested in a letter I just wrote to the US Forest Service.  I have left some of it out, but these are the guts of it.  As many of your know, we manage parks and campgrounds under concession contract for public entities.  As such, we typically must get changes to customer fees approved in advance by the agency.  This is a version of a letter we just wrote to a number of US Forest Service offices in California explaining the substantial increases to camping rates that must occur over the coming years to accommodate the new California minimum wage laws.

2017 Fee Proposal & Impact of California Minimum Wage Increases on Camping Rates

The purpose of this letter is to make you aware of the substantial effect that the recent increase in California minimum wages will have on use fees. I will get into details below, but in short the newly-legislated 50% increase in the state minimum wage is likely to increase our costs by about 22%, even ahead of inflation in other categories of expenses. Just to stay at parity and to avoid cuts in service, we (and other California concessionaires) are going to need substantial increases in fees over the next five years. Frankly, this does not make me very happy – our company will have to struggle with public resentment of the new fees without making an extra dollar in profit – but it is the reality we must face together. The only other alternative would be large cuts in service (e.g. bathroom cleaning frequency) which frankly I am not going to accept.

Background on the Minimum Wage Increase

California minimum wages have already risen over the last three years by 25% from $8 to $10 an hour. The new California law, which will apply to most concessionaires, demands the following timetable for minimum hourly wages (smaller companies with fewer employees than we have will have one extra year to comply):

2016: $10.00

2017: $10.50

2018: $11.00

2019: $12.00

2020: $13.00

2021: $14.00

2022: $15.00

Note that given the terms of other portions of labor law, these same sorts of percentage increases must trickle up to all managers and salaried employees in California as well.

Background on Concessionaire Cost Structures

Not surprisingly, as a labor-intensive service business, a substantial portion of concessionaire costs are directly tied to wage rates. The minimum wage increase will increase at least three categories of our costs:

  • Wages
  • Payroll taxes (which are calculated as a percentage of wages, so will go up by the same percentages as wages go up)
  • Workers compensation insurance premiums (which like payroll taxes are calculated as a percentage of wages and go up by the same percentage wages go up)

Looking at our financials for our California permits (we have three large permits in the Inyo NF and one in the Cleveland NF) these three categories make up 44% of our total costs.

Preliminary Estimated Fee Impacts

Let’s look, then, and how much our costs may rise between now and 2022.

For the labor and labor-related charges discussed above, we know that costs will rise 50% between now and 2022. A 50% price increase on 44% of our costs raises our total cost structure by 22% (0.5 * 0.44).

But all of our other costs will also continue to rise during this period by at least the national rate of inflation. It is very possible that these costs will increase faster in the future due to this minimum wage increase – for example, our waste disposal costs will almost certainly go up as the labor costs of waste disposal companies rise. For a starting point, we will assume 3% general inflation in 2016 and 2017 and 4% in the years after that. This would yield a 24% increase in the other 56% of our costs for an impact on our total costs of 13.4% (0.24*0.56). Combining these two effects, we can expect a total cost increase to operate campgrounds in California by 2022 of 35.4%.

Note that though we bid based on trying to earn a profit margin around 9%, our actual profit margin in the USFS campgrounds we operate in California has been between 3% and 7% of revenues (5% in 2013, 7% in 2014, 3% in 2015). There is simply no room in that margin to absorb a 35.4% cost increase. We are going to have to therefore seek fee increases over the next 6 years in the 35% range, or between $6 and $8 on the $18-$23 camping rates that currently obtain. This is about a dollar or year, or two dollars every other year.

Competitor Analysis

We understand that the USFS wants to justify fee increases based on market conditions. One problem we will have is that even though we don’t open until April or May at seasonal locations, we need to get fee approval the previous September or October. We fully expect private operators will have to pursue fee increases of a similar magnitude; however, they may not announce their new higher rates in time for our very early fee-setting process. This makes local competitive analysis misleading.

Fortunately, in California we have another large public campground provider, California State Parks (CSP), that has many of the same public service and land management goals as has the US Forest Service. They therefore make a very good comparison. While rates vary by park, CSP is typically charging $35 a night for a no-hook-up campsite in parks that are very comparable in their natural settings to USFS campgrounds.

We currently charge no more than $23 for a no-hook-up site in the USFS in California (both in the Inyo and Cleveland NF). Even with a $6 fee increase, we would still be offering no-hookup campsites at 17% lower cost than does the State of California today (and presumably even lower in 6 years given that CSP is likely to continue to increase its camping fees).

[Rest of the letter on exact fee recommendations and other contract issues omitted]

Living Atlas Shrugged in Venezuela

This sounds so much like the latter stages of Atlas Shrugged, when one by one Colorado businesses shut down, worsening shortages across he country.  The government tries to come in and restart each factory, but there is no confidence that the government can actually do the job and within months the whole thing has imploded forever.

Over the weekend, Kimberly-Clark said that the South American nation’s deteriorating economic situation had made “it impossible to continue our business at this time."  The company had made a number of hard-to-find staples in Venezuela such as diapers and face tissues.

As Bloomberg adds, the decision will likely to add to shortages that have gripped Venezuela for the past few years after the ruling socialists capped the price on many consumer basics below production costs." As we have documented repeatedly, desperate shoppers now routinely spend long hours in front of stores to purchase essential products ranging from toilet paper to rice. At the same time, companies face hefty losses on price-controlled goods, while the products are often flipped on the black market for many times their sticker price.

So in retaliation, Venezuela's government announced it had seized the factory.  Labor Minister Owaldo Vera said Monday that the socialist government took the action at the request of the 971 workers at the factory that the company decided to shutter. The seizure follows a similar takeover from 2014 when Clorox announced it was closing its doors.

"Kimberly-Clark will continue producing for all of the Venezuelans," Vera said in a televised statement from the factory surrounded by workers chanting pro-government slogans. That statement was not exactly true: former workers of the company would continue producing under the observation of government management. We doubt this "forced restructring" will survive more than a few months.

I have written this before, but I interpret Atlas Shrugged a bit differently than most.  There is much criticism of the one-dimensional characters and limited character development in the book.  But I have always thought this beside the point.  The main character in Atlas Shrugged is the world itself, and the main story arc is the decline and fall of the world under the increasing influence of socialism.  All the human characters are just props to this main drama.

In this interpretation, the climax of the book is when the hobo Jeff Allen tells the story of 20th Century Motors to Dagny on the train.  This story shows the final death throws of a group of people attempting to pursue socialism in its purest form.  It's a statement of the end towards which everything else is quickly heading.  After this point in the book, we immediately are in Galt's Gulch and end up with Rand's Utopian vision, which from a literary standpoint is awkward and boring.  That's because utopian novels are always dull as dirt.  Rand's triumph in that book was that she was absolutely prescient about how socialism plays out, which we are seeing today in Venezuela.