Posts tagged ‘management’

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.

Hillary Clinton and "Intent" -- Can the Rest Of Us Get A Mens Rea Defense From Prosecution?

Yesterday, the FBI said that Hillary Clinton should not be prosecuted because, though she clearly violated laws about management of confidential information, she had no "intent" to do so.  Two thoughts

  • Even if she had no intent to violate secrecy laws, she did - beyond a reasonable doubt - have intent to violate public transparency and FOIA laws.  She wanted to make it hard, or impossible, for Conservative groups to see her communications, communications that the public has the right to see.  In violating this law with full intent, she also inadvertently violated secrecy laws.  I don't consider this any different than being charged for murder when your bank robbery inadvertently led to someone's death.
  • If politicians are going to grant each other a strong mens rea (guilty mind or criminal intent) requirements for criminal prosecution, then politicians need to give this to the rest of us as well.  Every year, individuals and companies are successfully prosecuted for accidentally falling afoul of some complex and arcane Federal law.   Someone needs to ask Hillary where she stands on Federal mens rea reform.

Tesla and SolarCity: Two Drunks Propping Each Other Up

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 can think of three things.

The first is Elon Musk.   When one sees a deal like this, one is immediately suspicious that there is some kind of game going on where the owner combines holding A with holding B and somehow in the combination ends up with more wealth.  This is a game conglomerates played in the 1960's -- you could create a lot of (paper) value if you had a high PE (stock price to earnings ratio) company and went around buying low PE companies, instantly creating paper wealth if you could buy their earnings cheap and then have them suddenly valued at your higher PE.   Its hard to guess if this sort of game is going on here, as neither company has earnings (or rather both lose a lot of money).   Further, I have no read on Mr. Musk's personal ethics.  If this were Donald Trump, we would all immediately be suspicious such a game was at play.

The second thing these two companies share is that they have business models based on consuming massive amounts of government subsidies.  They get subsidies directly (each by selling various sorts of tax credits or fuel economy credits to power companies and auto makers), they have both gotten sweetheart deals from governments for production facilities, and their customers get subsidized as well in the purchase.  However, while there certainly are economies of scale for cronyism (large companies have the pull to get the loot), I shudder to think that there might be even more for these two companies to grab if they were larger.

The third thing these two companies share is that they both have huge financing needs, are losing lots of money, and are burning through tons of cash.   And here I think is the real heart of this deal, and if I am right, we may be able to answer the question on Elon Musk's ethics.  While both companies are burning through cash and are constantly going out to the market for more money, Tesla still has a (not totally justified in my mind) fabulous reputation with investors** and people seem to be falling over themselves to throw money at it.  With Apple languishing and Google old news, there is no hipper, trendier company out there.   On the other hand, SolarCity is starting to suck wind.  A few months back JP Morgan downgraded the stock:

SolarCity is having trouble attracting new investors, as the company has launched and canceled programs and altered its accounting methods, JPMorgan wrote in a note, according to MarketWatch.

Additionally, some of SolarCity's lower-income customers could be at risk of "slow-pay or default in the event of an economic downturn," the firm continued.

...SolarCity's weaknesses include its generally high debt management risk, weak operating cash flow, generally disappointing historical performance in the stock itself and poor profit margins.

They are also seeing more competition from local contractors and, perhaps most worrisome for their business model, various government subsidies are being scaled back and many states are changing their power metering rules to pay customers only the wholesale rate, rather than the retail rate, for power they put back in the grid.  They have said in most of their annual reports as a risk that their business model likely would not be viable (if it could be called that even today) without current or higher levels of government subsidies.

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.

There is a substantial minority of the investment community that thinks that Tesla's headed for chapter 11, even before taking on the SolarCity albatross.  Here is one academic paper.  Here is another such opinion.  Non-GAAP reporting has proliferated like a cancer among public companies, with so many creative non-GAAP numbers that I am not sure the Enron folks would go to jail nowadays.  Tesla is a master of this game.    Even if Tesla is not headed for chapter 11, the absolute last thing Tesla needs to be doing is taking on a new acquisition that burns a lot of cash, while simultaneously diluting their management focus.

When I watch SpaceX launches, I so want to love Elon Musk.  But I am increasingly convinced that this is a terrible deal, an insider game he is playing to try to keep one of his investments alive.  I am seldom a fan of most minority shareholder lawsuits, but if I were a minority shareholder of Tesla I would be suing to block this acquisition.

By the way, many investors must be reading this the same way, because SolarCity stock prices are up and Tesla stock prices are down (at lot) today.

Disclosure:  I have been short Tesla for a while.  I shorted SolarCity this morning when the acquisition was announced, after its price popped up.  I consider this merger announcement as the moral equivalent of announcing that SolarCity is in financial distress.  These investments are tiny, the equivalent of a bar bet rather than any substantial investment on my part.

**Footnote:  I have to say this every time -- The Model S is a great car.  I would love to have one, if Santa put it under the tree for me.  But just because they have one great product does not mean that the company will be a success or is a great investment or that it is worth massive amounts of my tax money in subsidies.

Disney Wait Times Are Among The Most Transparent Service Numbers Anywhere

How often does Amazon fail to deliver Prime shipments in two days?  I have no idea -- I know it has happened to me sometimes, but they don't publish the metric.  What is the average wait time on the phone with the IRS?  We don't know.  What is the average wait time at a TSA checkpoint?  We don't know.

One thing we most certainly do know, and can know any time on any day, is the current wait time for any Disney ride.  I bring this up because some goofball in the Obama Administration made this absurd statement trying to justify the lack of transparency for VA wait times:

When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Bruce McQuain rightly points out the downside of a longer wait for Space Mountain is just a tiny bit lower than the downside of waiting for heart surgery.

But I want to add that this statement is not even close to being factually correct on its face.  Here is an example of a site that has Disney ride wait times in real time, but there are dozens of apps and sites with this info because Disney makes the data public in an API most anyone can access.  (My favorite is Touring Plans, which has built a whole Disney trip planning business on top of Disney published wait time data -- as an aside, if you are a Disney fan or future visitor, you should join).

But I would go further.  I know for a fact that Disney spends a ton of time internally planning and improving ride throughput and capacity entirely with an eye to reducing wait times (and also, by the way, to making design changes that make ride waits more enjoyable with in-line activities).  They have a sophisticated operational research staff working on this all the time, and they are constantly tweaking their Fastpass system which would not even begin to work correctly if they did not understand ride wait times down to the second decimal place.  And by the way, if their management found out that some folks in their organization were fudging line wait time data, I am pretty sure the offenders would not be working there any more (as they are at the VA).

Postscript:  I am still amazed by the fail here.  Anyone who has been to Disney even once will know that all wait times are displayed all over the park on boards, and that at each ride, every few minutes a customer will get an electronic card at the beginning of the ride that precisely times their wait.   Seriously, where do they get folks like this who can blithely utter nonsense as if they know what they are talking about.  The whole premise is screwed up.  Yes, good service companies measure overall satisfaction. This is marginally useful data, but what does one do with it?  To really fix and improve the experience, one also has to measure many important bits of the experience.  Saying that one should pay attention to only one output metric and nothing else would get you laughed out of any quality course I have ever been to.

Update:  Also, I would add that there is a lot of market pressure on the wait time issue pushing Disney to improvement on lines, market pressure that does not exist on the VA (which is one reason they totally lack any accountability).  Disney has its FastPass system for helping guests manage ride waits, but both Universal and Six Flags have their own different systems (Universal has a higher level ticket you can buy that gets you preferred access to all rides, Six Flags Magic Mountain has a pager system where you tell it which ride you want to do next and they page you when your place is ready).

Minimum Wage Pits Employees vs. Customers, Not Employees vs. Management

This post earlier on the customer service downsides of the new salaried overtime rules got me thinking more broadly about the impact of minimum wage type laws.  Progressives justify such laws by saying that there is a power imbalance between management and employees, and that the government needs to have minimum wage laws to make up for the fact that employees lack power.

But from my experience in the service world, it is wrong to look at the situation as a power struggle between managers and employees.  It is much more correct to look at this as a power struggle between employees and customers.  Let me explain.

Service and retail firms tend to live on razor-thin margins.  Retailers typically live on single-digit profit margins, and those of companies like Wal-Mart are as low as 2% of revenues.  Our company in the service business has a similar experience, averaging profit margins of 3-5% of revenues over the last 10 years.

This is not an accident.  Most service and retail businesses depend on simple service-delivery models using relatively low-skilled workers.  There are many low-skilled workers in the world.  If a company were to start making huge profits with a service model using such workers, it would be easy for others to copy it and hire the same types of workers and undercut them on price.  Margins tend to get competed down to the bare minimum.

No matter how much progressives would like it to be so, when California raises its minimum wage, it probably is not going to come out of company margins, at least in the near term.  Over the 10 years from about 2013 to 2022, California will have raised its minimum wage over 87% from $8 an hour to $15.  Wages and costs like workers comp premiums that are tied to wages are about half my costs.  This means an 87% labor cost increase will increase my total costs 44%.  How is that going to come out of a 4% margin?  It is not.

There are really only two things we can do, individually or in combination.  First, we can raise prices 44%, just to try to stay even.  Of course, some customers will balk and stop buying, and then we will lose business and perhaps have to close (we have already closed over half our businesses in California for just this reason).  Or second, we could cut staff in half to keep wages under control.  Of course, this means customers get served much more poorly, which also may drive customers away.  Other companies like fast food restaurants have a third option of automation, replacing people with machines -- I wish we could do this but right now we have run out of ideas for automating bathroom cleaning and landscape work.

Hopefully, you can see what is going on here.  The real tension here is between employees and customers.  When the state mandates a minimum wage in low margin service businesses (such laws are largely irrelevant to high-margin technology companies and such), compliance is paid for by the customer, either in the form of higher prices or worse service or both.

Why Don't Progressives Use Their Power as Hedge Fund Customers to Challenge Hedge Fund Compensation?

Kevin Drum observes that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned $13 billion in total, including one hapless dude who made $250 million despite losing money and shutting down the fund.

I will say that I have always scratched my head over asset manager compensation.  The tradition is that they get paid as a percentage of assets managed, sometimes with a percentage of the profits as well but never taking a percentage of the losses.   Perhaps this made some sense with smaller pools of money, but today with huge pools of money, the same old percentages yield ludicrous compensation results.  I certainly understand why the managers would defend this compensation scheme, but why do customers accept it?

This reminds me of real estate broker compensation.  The tradition when I grew up is that the seller paid 6%, about half of which went to the seller's broker and half to the buyer's broker.  For years that 6% was etched in stone and no one broke ranks -- the agents were pretty good at maintaining the cartel, and the government helped by putting the force of law behind broker licensing that helped keep the agent supply down.  But as home prices kept increasing, people started noticing that while 6% of $100,000 may have made some sense as reasonable compensation, 6% of $2 million was absurd, especially since a $2 million home was not even close to 20x harder to sell.   So people, initially savvy high net worth folks, and later everyone, began negotiating the 6%.  I have negotiated this number on every home I have sold since the mid-1990s.

I am not really knowledgeable about the asset management business -- in some sense I have negotiated my commission by choosing to put all my money in low-fee Vanguard funds.  How does the asset management business hold the line on fees, particularly when they are in a business where it is so easy to measure their relative performance, and presumably pay them based on this performance?

Which got me to thinking about the customers of hedge funds.  Aren't many of these customers progressive or controlled by progressives?  Hedge funds have been very successful marketing to university endowments, non-profit foundations, and public pension funds -- aren't these institutions often controlled by progressives, or at least left-liberals?  Aren't a disproportionate share of the very high net worth Hollywood and billionaire types who invest in hedge funds also progressive or liberal?  Heck, Hillary Clinton's son-in-law ran a hedge fund until recently.  So why don't these folks get together and instead of worrying about whether their portfolios are invested in Israel or Exxon or some other progressive bette noir, why don't they agree to a set of principles as to how they are going to pay for their asset management services in the future, and stick to these?  I say that progressives should get together, because they are politically passionate about this, but I can't think of any good reason why good libertarians or conservatives wouldn't happily join in to reduce their fees.

I understand that to the extent that there are black swan hedge funds that beat the market year in and year out, these folks will be hard to challenge as they can probably write their own terms.  But for the other 99% of hedge funds, why not use the power progressives already have as customers before we start talking about various government hammers.

PS-  I will put my two cents in.  I think the new Mother Jones site design is awful.

So @tylercowen, You Want to Understand the Great Stagnation? Here It Is

Certainly the government's current permission-based approach to business regulation combined with an overt hostility of government (or at least those parties that influence it) to radically new business models (see: Uber) is a big part of the great stagnation story.

But insanity like this is also a big part:

Vague but expensive-if-not-correct rules on employee seating just got vaguer and harder to figure out

Weighing in on two California laws that require employers to provide suitable seating to workers when “the nature of the work” permits it, the California Supreme Court said the phrase refers to an employee's tasks performed at a given location for which the right to a suitable seat is asserted.

In response to questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the state high court said April 4 that the phrase “nature of the work” doesn't require a holistic evaluation of the full range of an employee's tasks completed during a shift.

An employer's business judgment and the layout of the workplace are relevant in determining whether sitting is permitted, but courts should apply an objective analysis based on the totality of the circumstances, the California Supreme Court said.

It held that “if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.”

As a business owner in California, I am going to have to do a ton of research to figure out just how we can comply with all this, and even then I will likely be wrong because whether one is in compliance or not is never actually clear until it is tested in court.  I had to do the same thing with California meal break law (multiple times), California heat stress law, new California harassment rules, California sick leave rules, the California minimum wage, Obamacare rules, Obamacare reporting, the new upcoming DOL rules on salaried employees, etc.

Five or ten years ago, I spent most of my free time thinking about improving and growing the business.  Now, all my mental bandwidth is consumed by regulatory compliance.  I have not added a new business operation for years, but instead have spent most of my time exiting businesses in California.  Perhaps more important is what I am doing with my managers.  My managers are not Harvard MBAs, they are front-line blue collar folks who have been promoted to manager because they have proven themselves adept at our service process.  There are only a finite number of things I can teach them and new initiatives I can give them in a year.  And instead of using this limited bandwidth to teach some of the vital productivity enhancement tools we should be adopting, I spend all my training time on compliance management issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Ownership and Labor Mobility

Alex Tabarrok discusses some academic work that shows a declining inter-regional mobility in the United States which is causing local economic declines to last much longer than they used to last.

In a new paper, also cited by Leubsdorf, Danny Yagan at Berkeley suggests that reduced migration is only part of the problem. What has made the aftermath to the 2008-2009 recession so bad is that migration is low at the same time that it has become more necessary than ever. The 2008-2009 recession was especially localized, it hit some places harder than others and in a way that appears to be permanent. But migration has been too slow to solve the problem.

The usual story is that in-and-out migration equalizes wage, unemployment and employment rates across the nation. Some places may be harder hit than others but movement quickly makes the US into one labor market. In the aftermath of this recession, however, that isn’t happening for employment rates. Using a clever research design that looks at workers with similar education and skills doing the same jobs at the same large firms but in different locations, Yagan finds that location continues to matter years after the recession has ended. Workers who worked in the places hardest hit in the 2007-2009 recession have employment rates today that are 1% lower than similar workers in regions that were less hard hit.

It is probably unfair for me to comment on this because I have been highly mobile in  my life, having lived and worked in about 10 places as diverse as Houston, Dallas, Boston, Boulder, Seattle, Phoenix, St. Louis.  However, I will take  a shot at this.  Some of my hypotheses:

  1. Government programs to encourage home ownership have reduced mobility.  It is simply harder to move if one has a house to sell, and this was worse in the last recession, which was driven in large part by falling home prices, which made it even harder to move when one has an underwater home to sell.
  2. Political/Cultural redlining reduces mobility.  As an example, certain millennials want to be nowhere else but San Francisco, despite how absurdly hard it is to live there.  They will starve in poverty there before going to, say, Houston, which is an easy place to live when one is young but which many consider to be a evil redneck backwater.
  3. Use of Communication technology causes people to think they can reduce mobility when they perhaps can't.  I think a lot of folks with modern communication technology assume that location is irrelevant and that they should be able to do X work anywhere they want.   I think they are overestimating where many industries and companies are right now (though they may be correct in the future).  Just from tax compliance and regulatory perspectives, it is pure hell for a company in, say, Texas to have an employee in, say, California.  Plus I think there are still real networking and management reasons for employees to be concentrated in facilities.

 

Why Exxon Provides a Good Analogy for the Central Banker's Dilemma

This article on Exxon stock seemed to be an allegory for the current problem central bankers face:

Earlier this month, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) reported Q4 2015 earningswhich, as expected, looked ugly considering the large decline in the price of oil over the last one and a half years. Exxon Mobil has long been one of the largest repurchasers of shares, spending a net of $89.74B on share buybacks during the 2010 through 2015 period. However, during the Q4 earnings release, management stated that share buybacks were being halted, presumably to preserve cash...

Contrast that with the strategy from 2008 when share buybacks were accelerated during the market fallout of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the beginnings of what's now known as the Great Recession. Management reduced shares outstanding by 7.5% in 2008 alone...

Oil prices have sunk to lows not seen in more than a decade. The share price hit a low in the $60s in 2015 which hadn't been seen since late 2010. If you're of the belief that oil prices will rebound, eventually, then now should be the time that Exxon Mobil is ramping up the share buybacks not eliminating them.

This is the problem the author is highlighting:  Exxon ran up tens of billions in debt to stimulate the stock price in good times.  Now that times are bad, at least in the oil patch, the tank is empty (so to speak) and they have had to cease buybacks at the very time they would make the most sense (the same amount of money spent at lower stock prices would have higher impact on EPS).  The tank is empty enough that they might have to cut the dividend, an action with such negative consequences for stock value that it would likely undo all the effects of years of stock purchases.

I am not trying to beat up on Exxon -- I actually admire them as a well-managed company and pretty much every large corporation has gotten caught up in this unproductive Fed-inspired game of borrowing at close to zero and buying back stock (to my mind the financial equivalent of the Keynesian digging of holes and filling them back in).  But I hope you can see the analogy with the position of governments and central bankers.   For the last 5 years, when economic times have been good (alright, maybe just OK) governments have been deficit spending like crazy and central banks have been expanding their balance sheets with programs like QE to keep the economy stimulated.  But just as with the situation at Exxon, when the bad times come, bankers are going to find themselves with far fewer options than they had in 2008.

PS:  This is what Exxon really should have been doing the last 5 years -- hoarding their cash and borrowing reserves to be able to buy assets like crazy on the cheap in the next downturn.  They have always been able to do this in past downturns.  I suspect it may not be possible this time.