Posts tagged ‘Wall Street’

The Corporate State Is Winning

Successful businesses often seek to cement their position and block new competition by running to government for legislation that blocks new entrants and/or makes it harder to compete for smaller upstarts.  One only need to look at the taxi cartel trying to kill Uber and Lyft to see exactly how this operates.  It is working:

small-biz5-14

 

This is a strategy that works with both Republican and Democrat politicians, which may explain why both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party shared opposition to cronyism among their complaints.

Of course there are other factors than just powerful incumbents blocking new competitors.  In California, regulations that make it just debilitating to try to run a business are also driven by the tort bar, which has created a thriving business in extracting settlements from companies over miniscule rules violations.  And the California government obliges by shifting the rules constantly, so companies are both constantly vulnerable and have to pay other attorneys to strengthen their immune systems against these assaults.

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

I warned you that Cliven Bundy's ranch was the wrong hill to fight on over property rights and the role of government ownership on western lands.  And I was right.

This kind of thing should not come as a surprise.  This is a guy who simply did not want to pay his rent, and used the catch phrases of liberty to try to get sympathy.  I could find about a thousand far more sympathetic examples of folks screwed over by government land use regulations -- e.g. people whose puddle in the backyard is suddenly a wetlands that they can't build on.  But for some reason Conservatives all rushed to pile on this one example.  Stupid.  The media can probably be counted on to hide the unsavory back stories of Occupy Wall Street supporters, but there is no way they are going to do so for a "hero" of the right.   The BLM almost bailed Conservatives out of their stupid support for Bundy by their execrable on-site management of the raid, but Conservatives are now getting what they deserve for jumping in bed with this guy.

Our Political Opponents Believe Whatever We Say They Believe

I can think of two groups with whom I have some sympathy -- the Tea Party and climate skeptics -- who share one problem in common:  the media does not come to them to ask them what their positions are.  The media instead goes to their opposition to ask what their positions are.  In other words, the media asks global warming strong believers what the skeptic position is, without ever even talking to skeptics.  It should be no surprise then that these groups get painted with straw men positions that frequently bear no resemblance to their actual beliefs.

Paul Krugman provides an excellent example.  He writes:  (shame on the blog author for not linking Krugman's article, here is the link)

Or we’re told that conservatives, the Tea Party in particular, oppose handouts because they believe in personal responsibility, in a society in which people must bear the consequences of their actions. Yet it’s hard to find angry Tea Party denunciations of huge Wall Street bailouts, of huge bonuses paid to executives who were saved from disaster by government backing and guarantees.

This is really outrageous.  I am not a Tea Partier because they hold a number of positions (e.g. on immigration and gay marriage) opposite of mine.  But to say they somehow have ignored cronyism and bailouts is just absurd.  TARP was one of the instigations, if not the key instigation, for the Tea Party.  As I have written any number of times, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street actually shared a number of common complaints about bank bailouts and cronyism.

David Harsanyi has more here.

By the way, it is Hilarious to see Krugman trying to claim the moral high ground on Cronyism, as he has been such a vociferous proponent of the Fed balance sheet expansion, which will likely go down in history as one of the greatest crony giveaways to the rich in history.

Who is the Real Crony, Koch or Reid?

The Senate Majority Leader has decided to try to shame and silence a private citizen for daring to engage in political discourse.  Here is Harry Reid:

I believe in an America where economic opportunity is open to all. And based on their actions and policies they promote, the Koch brothers seem to believe in an America where the system is rigged to benefit the very wealthy.

Remember that this is coming from the man who has somehow become a multi-multi-millionaire over a lifetime of only holding government jobs.

Contrast this with Charles Koch's actual words, parts of which could have come out of the mouth of an occupy Wall Street protester:

I think one of the biggest problems we have in the country is this rampant cronyism where all these large companies are into smash-and-grab, short-term profits, saying how do I get a regulation, or we don’t want to export natural gas because it’s one of our raw materials … Well, you say you believe in free markets, but by your actions you obviously don’t. You believe in cronyism.

And that’s true even at the local level. I mean, how does somebody get started if you have to pay $100,000 or $300,000 to get a medallion to drive a taxi cab? You have to go to school for two years to be a hairdresser. You name it, in every industry we have this. The successful companies try to keep the new entrants down. Now that’s great for a company like ours. We make more money that way because we have less competition and less innovation. But for the country as a whole, it’s horrible.

And for disadvantaged people trying to get started, it’s unconscionable in my view. I think it’s in our long-term interest, in every American’s long-term interest, to fight against this cronyism. As you all have heard me say, the role of business is to create products that make people’s lives better while using fewer resources to do it, and making more resources available to satisfy other needs.

When a company is not being guided by the products they make and what the customers need, but by how they can manipulate the system — getting regulations on their competitors, or mandates on using their products, or eliminating foreign competition — it just lowers the overall standard of living and hurts the disadvantaged the most.We end up with a two-tier system. Those that have, have welfare for the rich. The poor, OK, you have welfare, but you’ve condemned them to a lifetime of dependency and hopelessness.

Yeah, we want “hope and change,” but we want people to have the hope that they can advance on their own merits, rather than the hope that somebody gives them something. That’s better than starving to death, but that, I think, is going to wreck the country. Is it in our business interest? I think it’s in all our long-term interests. It’s not in our short-term interest. And it’s about making money honorably.

People should only profit to the extent they make other people’s lives better. You should profit because you created a better restaurant and people enjoyed going to it. You didn’t force them to go, you don’t have a mandate that you have to go to my restaurant on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or you go to prison. I mean, come on. You feel good about that?

Harry Reid's entire job is built on a foundation of cronyism.  Most of his re-election money comes from outside his home state of Nevada, from companies hoping to score political favors from him and from the power he weilds in the Senate.  If laws were proposed to thwart Congressional cronyism, say through reducing the power of Congress to pick winners and losers, who would fight such a law, Reid or Koch?

How Regulators Strangle Legal Businesses

Apparently the Feds are using banking regulation to strangle businesses, even legal ones, that they don't like by cutting off their access to the banking system (via Overlawyered).

Wall Street Journal reporter Robin Sidel, along with Andrew Johnson, reported on the success that the federal government is having in barring access to the banking system for a number of businesses. As we've discussed previously, "Operation Choke Point" and related arm-twisting efforts by the Feds are aimed at making life difficult for a variety of targeted businesses. Among those disfavored businesses are online lenders, payday lenders, check cashers, virtual currency dealers, gaming businesses, and marijuana-related businesses (although our beloved US Attorney General has been making noises that he simply will look the other way when it comes to enforcing federal drug laws against marijuana businesses that are operating legally under state law)....

In the article and a companion audio interview, Sidel states that the primary concern appears to be with the difficulty of complying with BSA and money laundering risk. While that's certainly true with many of the businesses, it's also true that some of the businesses have been targeted by the regulators for extra scrutiny because they're in a line of business, like payday lending, where the regulators simply don't like the business model on social policy grounds. If we see the Feds back off of weed but still keep the heat on payday lenders, then the argument that it's all about money laundering risk becomes a bit tenuous.

Challenging the Governments Arbitrary Closure of Privately-Funded Parks During the Shutdown

I have not updated this story in a while, but we continue to litigate against the Federal Government over the closure of privately-operated and privately-funded parks on public lands.  The closure is over, obviously, but it is a situation that is very likely to recur and we are attempting to fight this battle now to set a precedent.   The Wall Street Journal's law blog is running an update on the story here.

You can find all my posts from the shutdown here.

Government Regulation and Incumbent Business Protection

Scratch "consumer" protection laws and you will almost always find the laws are really aimed a protecting incumbent businesses and traditional business models.  This time from France:

To the surprise of virtually everyone in France, the government has just passed a law requiring car services like Uber to wait 15 minutes before picking up passengers. The bill is designed to help regular taxi drivers, who feel threatened by recently-introduced companies like Uber, SnapCar and LeCab. Cabbies in the Gallic nation require formidable time and expense to get their permits and see the new services -- which lack such onerous requirements -- as direct competitors.

This is the interesting political ground where the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party have a lot of overlap.  That is why the Chamber of Commerce, which represents all these incumbent businesses, is working with both parties to keep the cozy corporatists in power against challenges from the Left and Right.  If you are a business owner, eschew the Chamber and join the NFIB and support the IJ.

How Newspapers May Survive

Local blogger Greg Patterson writes:

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Gannett will soon be adding USA Today to it's local papers.

With this change, the Republic and USA Today are essentially a hybrid.  As print revenue continues to slide the USA Today side will grow and the Republic side will shrink.  Eventually, your morning Republic will consist of a copy of USA Today with enhanced local coverage.

This is a change I have expected for a long time.  The wire services have always existed as an attempt by local papers to share costs in national and international news gathering, but I would have expected this next step of national consolidation some time ago.  The internet allows not just the text, but the entire layout of newspapers to be transmitted instantly across the country.

The whole situation reminds me of television broadcasting, where local affiliates exist mainly as a byproduct of past technological limitations in signal transmission.  Satellite and cable have eliminated these restrictions, but still local affiliates exist, in part because there is some demand for local content but in part because of the fact that the government protects their existence (by law, cable and satellite operators must give you the local affiliate, they cannot give you the national feed).

This is what I wrote back in 2009

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

Apparently, Rental Homes Are Not Like Bonds

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

If so, I am unsurprised for three reasons:

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

Other Views on Teach for America

Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.

Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.

I guess my reaction to the article is this:  TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***.  However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.

The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system.  Think of it this way:  TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform.  It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids.  It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps.  It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it.  If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.

 

** I confess it may be my sample.  When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school.  Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance.  The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.

*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it.  I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful.  They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive).  Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.

Do Reporters Even Look At Their Own Charts?

A Wall Street Journal article today looks at problems at Sears in their critical appliance business.  I have no problem believing that Sears is in trouble, and at various times over the past decade (full disclosure here) have held small short positions in Sears.  The author argues that the Sears appliance business has had a number of missteps, and is contributing to Sears growing losses, propositions with which I cannot argue, in part because there is no data provided to confirm or deny the connection between problems in the appliance business and Sears' profitability woes.

The other theme of the article is that recent missteps in the appliance business, particularly the 2009 switch from Whirlpool to Samsung and LG to manufacture its in-house Kenmore brand, is hurting its market share in the retail appliance business, and leading the the growth in market share at Home Depot and Loews.   But the author's own data belie this conclusion.  Here is the market share chart she includes:

MK-CF765_SEARS_G_20130822175404

 

While Sears may have lost a couple of points of market share since 2008, and 2013 does not look like a particularly good year so far, the vast majority of its market share loss occurred from 2002-2008, long before most of the recent problems profiled in the article.  In fact, its more likely that the loss coincided with Sears reorganization with Kmart a decade ago, events referred to only briefly in the article.

Look, I have no insider knowledge here, just a pet peeve that trends referenced in an article should match trends in the data.  But Sears is a tired old retailer.  Many of its peers from the same era are dying or dead.  People are shifting their shopping away from the malls where Sears is located.  Lowes and Home Depot were both juggernauts during this period.  I would have said that a story could equally well have been written that despite all the confusion in their business, they have done a pretty descent job arresting the decline in their market share over the last five years.  Of course they are likely dead in the long run.

Postscript:  Oddly, I witnessed a similar Sears private label fracas when I worked for Emerson Electric over a decade ago.  For years and years, Emerson (not the folks who make the cheap radios and TVs) manufactured many of the Sears Craftsman hand tools and power tools.  Sears got tough one year, and negotiated a better deal of some sort with someone else, and an entire division of Emerson saw its sales basically going to zero.  So Emerson bought a bunch of orange paint and plastic, went to Home Depot, and cut a deal for a private label tool line at Home Depot (Emerson separately owns the Rigid tool company, so a lot of the items were branded Rigid).  Emerson ended up in potentially better shape (I did not stay long enough to see how it turned out), partnered with a growing rather than a declining franchise.

On Crazy Government Requests and Subsidizing Economists

There is some chance this may be apocryphal (I don't see any evidence the reporters confirmed this with the FDA), but as someone who has had government inspectors show up on our property demanding to see our license to sell eggs, it wouldn't surprise me if true.  I am bombarded with government insanity of this genre every day.

Apparently, a children's magician who was forced to obtain a government license for his stage rabbit is claiming

My USDA rabbit license requirement has taken another ridiculous twist. I just received an 8 page letter from the USDA, telling me that by July 29 I need to have in place a written disaster plan, detailing all the steps I would take to help get my rabbit through a disaster, such as a tornado, fire, flood, etc. They not only want to know how I will protect my rabbit during a disaster, but also what I will do after the disaster, to make sure my rabbit gets cared for properly.  I am not kidding–before the end of July I need to have this written rabbit disaster plan in place, or I am breaking the law.

The bizarre government requests like this one at least give us a laugh around here.  Less funny are the zillions of other pieces of waste paper that must be supplied to various agencies every month -- for example the 9 different permits which took 3 years to accumulate from Ventura County just to remove a dangerous and rotting deck  (not coincidentally, we are closing all our business in Ventura County at the end of this year).  Just in the last several days the Department of Labor asked for new, more onerous monthly reporting of headcounts and payroll by state (I declined) and the census bureau asked for quarterly rather than annual detailed reports of our lodging business (I declined).

One piece of advice I would give to harried small business people is to say "no" as often as possible to these data requests.  Obviously, you will need to turn in your monthly sales tax reports or you will be going to jail, but do you really need to feed the census?  The department of Commerce?  The Department of Agriculture?  The Labor Department?  Much of this data they gather is used either 1) to craft regulations that will just make your life as a business owner harder in the future or 2) to subsidize academics and economists in the form of free data.  As I told the Labor Department the other day, I am happy to fill out their survey if they want to pay me, say, $100 a month to compensate me for my time.  Otherwise they are just stealing free labor and proprietary data from me to help some grad student write her PHD or help some Wall Street hedge fund manager better call the market.

Obama Didn't Need to Order IRS Crackdown on the Tea Party

There won't be any direct order found telling the IRS to go hassle Conservative groups.  That's not the way it works.  Obama's style is to "other" groups he does not like, to impugn their motives, and to cast them as pariahs beyond the bounds of civil society.  Such and such group, he will say, opposes me not because they have reasonable differences of opinion but because they have nefarious motives.  Once a group is labelled and accepted (at least by your political followers) as such, you don't have to order people to harass them. They just do it, because they see it as the right thing to do to harass evil people.  When Joe Nocera writes this in support of Obama in no less a platform as the NY Times, orders are superfluous

You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.

These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people. Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America’s most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn’t care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took...

He concludes by saying

For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough. After all, they’ve gotten so much encouragement.

There are probably some deeply confused people in the IRS right now -- after all they were denying tax exempt status to terrorists, to enemies of America.  They should be treated like heroes, and now they are getting all this criticism.  So unfair.

Postscript:  And they are racists.  Racist terrorists.

But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent "Tea Party" movement that was then surging across the country.

This is totally the Obama way of fighting a political battle.  He is saying, "forget their stated reasons for opposing me, such as opposition to the health care law, to Wall Street bailouts, and to rising government debt.  They really oppose me because they are racists and I am black."  Obama's opposition are absolutely never, ever people of good will who simply disagree.

PS#2:  It's pretty hilarious the NY Times published Nocera's "Tea Partiers are Terrorists" editorial just 6 months after they editorialized against incivility in the context of the Giffords shooting, which by the way had as much to do with civility in public discourse as the Benghazi attacks had to do with a YouTube video.  In fact, it sure seems like this administration has a history of falsely blaming tragedies on their political opposition's speech.

A Partial Retraction on AIG

The story the other day that AIG was considering suing the taxpayers because the taxpayers did not give them a nice enough bailout was so vomit-inducing that I did not even look much further into it.

A couple of readers whom I trust both wrote me to say that the issues here are a bit more complex than I made them out to be.  The Wall Street Journal sounds a similar note today:

Every taxpayer and shareholder should be rooting for this case to go to trial. It addresses an important Constitutional question: When does the federal government have the authority to take over a private business? The question looms larger since the 2010 passage of the Dodd-Frank law, which gave the feds new powers to seize companies they believe pose risks to the financial system.

That vague concept of "systemic risk" was the justification for the AIG intervention in September 2008. In the midst of the financial crisis, the federal government seized the faltering insurance giant and poured taxpayer money into it. The government then used AIG as a vehicle to bail out other financial institutions.

But the government never received the approval of AIG's owners. The government first delayed a shareholder vote, then held one and lost it in 2009, and then ignored the results and allowed itself to vote as if the common shareholders had approved the deal.

In 2011 Mr. Greenberg's Starr International, a major AIG shareholder, filed a class-action suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington alleging a violation of its Constitutional rights. Specifically, Starr cites the Fifth Amendment, which holds that private property shall not "be taken for public use, without just compensation." The original rescue loans from the government required AIG to pay a 14.5% interest rate and were fully secured by AIG assets. So when the government also demanded control of 79.9% of AIG's equity, where was the compensation?

Greenberg is apparently arguing that he would have preferred chapter 11 and that the company and its original shareholders likely would have gotten a better deal.  Perhaps.   So I will tone down my outrage against Greenberg, I suppose.  But nothing about this makes me any happier about bailouts and corporate cronyism that are endemic in this administration.

Quote of the Day

From Megan McArdle:

When I was reporting on Wall Street, I used to be told with some regularity that government was needed to counteract the short-term thinking of the business sector, who never thought much beyond the next quarterly earnings report.  This now seems as quaintly adorable as picture hats and daily milk deliveries.  An ADHD day trader with a cocaine habit and six months to live has considerably more long-term planning skills than our current congress.

Part of a generally awesome rant

My Tax Proposal

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

 

I don't have any idea if this revenue positive or negative (I suspect it would be short-term positive, and long-term very positive), but I don't care.  This would:

  1. Substantially reduce the government's ability to play preference games and give crony special help in the tax code.
  2. Completely eliminate the huge unproductive drag of corporate tax law expenses and substantially reduce the cost of individual tax preparation.
  3. Eliminate the enormous unproductive drag of estate tax planning
  4. Eliminate forced sales of family farms and businesses at death in order to pay the taxes (taxes are paid instead on capital gains when sold).
  5. Substantially reduce government-induced distortions on flows of capital  (e.g. current promotion of home ownership over renting, of corporate debt over equity financing, of capital gains over income, etc).
  6. Eliminate most double taxations in the code, since there is now only the individual income tax.

I would be happy to make this revenue neutral (even if it required an individual income tax rate hike) and sell this to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as a plan to reduce waste, corporatism, and crony meddling.  The OWS might be upset about 2 & 4, but corporate profits eventually show up as either capital gains or dividends, so they will eventually get taxed on the individual income tax return.  Ditto death taxes - currently they are largely offset by the ability to write-up asset basis at death and aggressive tax planning.  And anyway, the death tax is a trivial sources of government revenues.

 

Postscript:  I know there is all sorts of literature that supposedly promotes a lower capital gains tax as an economic positive.  Frankly, I don't trust it any more than any other literature genned up to promote special tax breaks to any group because that group is supposedly economically more important.  In my mind, a lower capital gains tax rate (which means a higher regular income tax rate) is just another way of government expressing an artificial preference for one economic activity over another.  Specifically, a lower capital gains rate creates a preference for real estate and stock investors over business owners.   Currently, I invest in a second home and flip it for a profit and I get a tax break on the capital gains.  But if I invest in a business instead that pays off with regular income, I get no tax break.  Why?  Why is one type of investing better than another?  The answer is that it is not, but the people who buy and sell equities and real estate in large quantities have more political clout than small business owners.

Postscript #2:  And Medicare taxes have to go up, at least until the program is restructured. 

Postscript #3:  This is a great example of what I want to make go away.  I consider it far more destructive in the long run than a percentage point rate change.  In case it is behind a paywall, here is a bit of it (these giveaways to the rich were in the very same bill that was supposed to be to soak the rich):

Thus Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was able to retain an accelerated tax write-off for owners of Nascar tracks (cost: $78 million) to benefit the paupers who control the Michigan International Speedway. New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman saved a tax credit for companies operating in American Samoa ($62 million), including a StarKist factory.

Distillers are able to drink to a $222 million rum tax rebate. Perhaps this will help to finance more of those fabulous Bacardi TV ads with all those beautiful rich people. Businesses located on Indian reservations will receive $222 million in accelerated depreciation. And there are breaks for railroads, "New York Liberty Zone" bonds and so much more.

But a special award goes to Chris Dodd, the former Senator who now roams Gucci Gulch lobbying for Hollywood's movie studios. The Senate summary of his tax victory is worth quoting in full: "The bill extends for two years, through 2013, the provision that allows film and television producers to expense the first $15 million of production costs incurred in the United States ($20 million if the costs are incurred in economically depressed areas in the United States)."

You gotta love that "depressed areas" bit. The impoverished impresarios of Brentwood get an extra writeoff if they take their film crews into, say, deepest Flatbush. Is that because they have to pay extra to the caterers from Dean & DeLuca to make the trip? It sure can't be because they hire the jobless locals for the production crew. Those are union jobs, mate, and don't you forget it.

The Joint Tax Committee says this Hollywood special will cost the Treasury a mere $248 million over 10 years, but over fiscal years 2013 and 2014 the cost is really $430 million because it is supposed to expire at the end of this year. In reality Mr. Dodd will wrangle another extension next year, and the year after that, and . . . . Investing a couple million in Mr. Dodd in return for $430 million in tax breaks sure beats trying to make better movies.

Then there are the green-energy giveaways that are also quickly becoming entitlements. The wind production tax credit got another one-year reprieve, thanks to Mr. Obama and GOP Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa). This freebie for the likes of the neediest at General Electric GE -0.82% andSiemens SIE.XE +0.20% —which benefit indirectly by making wind turbine gear—is now 20 years old. Cost to taxpayers: $12 billion.

Cellulosic biofuels—the great white whale of renewable energy—also had their tax credit continued, and the definition of what qualifies was expanded to include producers of "algae-based fuel" ($59 million.) Speaking of sludge, biodiesel and "renewable diesel" will continue receiving their $1 per gallon tax credit ($2.2 billion). The U.S. is experiencing a natural gas and oil drilling boom, but Congress still thinks algae and wind will power the future.

Meanwhile, consumers will get tax credits for buying plug-in motorcycles ($7 million), while the manufacturers of energy-efficient appliances ($650 million) and builders of energy-efficient homes ($154 million) also retain tax credits. Manufacturers like Whirlpool love these subsidies, and they are one reason that company paid no net taxes in recent years.

Libertarian / OWS Nexus

I continue to be fascinated by the frequent intersection of classical liberals / libertarians and Occupy Wall Street, at least in the diagnosis of what ails us.  This post by Russ Roberts I linked previously is a great example.   Both groups get energized by criticisms of the corporate state and crony government.

Where they diverge, of course, is in solution-making.  The OWS folks see the root cause in the behavior and incentives of private corporations which corrupt government actors with their money, and thus advocate solutions which increase state power over these private entities.  In contrast, libertarians like myself see the problem as too much state power to create winners and losers in the market and shift wealth from one group to another.  Given this power, the financial incentives to harness it in ones favor are overwhelming and will never go away, so the only way to tackle it is to reduce the power to play favorites.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

Romney and Republican Messaging Fail

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep With The Dogs, Wake Up With Fleas

JP Morgan finds itself under the government microscope for having heartlessly... cooperated with the government four years ago

The U.S. Department of Justice and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman teamed up last week to sue J.P. Morgan in a headline-grabbing case alleging the fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities.

One notable detail: J.P. Morgan didn't sell the securities. The seller was Bear Stearns—yes, the same Bear Stearns that the government persuaded Morgan to buy in 2008. And, yes, the same government that is now participating in the lawsuit against Morgan to answer for stuff Bear did before the government got Morgan to buy it....

As for the federal government's role, it's helpful to recall some recent history: In the mid-2000s, Bear Stearns became—outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—perhaps the most reckless financial firm in the housing market. Bear was the smallest of the major Wall Street investment banks. But instead of allowing market punishment for Bear and its creditors when it was headed to bankruptcy, the feds decided the country could not survive a Bear failure. So they orchestrated a sale to J.P. Morgan and provided $29 billion in taxpayer financing to make it happen.

The principal author of the Bear deal was Timothy Geithner, who was then the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is now the Secretary of the Treasury. Until this week, we didn't think the Bear intervention could look any worse.

Somewhere there was a legal department fail here - I can't ever, ever imagine buying a company with Bear's reputation that was sinking into bankruptcy without doing either via an asset sale or letting the mess wash through Chapter 7 so there could be an old bank / new bank split.  But Bank of America made exactly the same mistake at roughly the same time with Countrywide, so it must have appeared at the time that the government largess here (or the government pressure) was too much to ignore.

You Can't Use Voluntary Action to Try to Stop Government Coersion

Or so says California's Gavin Newsom, in a great Reuters quote found by Zero Hedge:

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom says he wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate "threats" against local communities considering using eminent domain to seize and restructure poorly performing mortgages to benefit cash-strapped homeowners.

Newsom sent a letter on Monday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking federal prosecutors to investigate any attempts by Wall Street investors and government agencies to "boycott" California communities that are considering such moves.

"I am most disturbed by threats leveled by the mortgage industry and some in the federal government who have coercively urged local governments to reject consideration" of eminent domain," he wrote in a letter, a copy of which was provided to Reuters.

Newsom, a Democrat who was previously mayor of San Francisco, warned the influential Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association in July to "cease making threats to the local officials of San Bernardino County" over the proposed plan to seize underwater mortgages from private investors.

Some towns in San Bernardino County, which is located east of Los Angeles, have set up a joint authority that is looking into the idea of using eminent domain to forcibly purchase distressed mortgages. Rather than evict homeowners through foreclosure, the public-private entity would offer residents new mortgages with reduced debts.

Newsom said in the letter on Monday that while he is not endorsing the use of eminent domain at this time, he wants communities in California to be able to "explore every option" for solving their mortgage burdens "without fear of illegal reprisal by the mortgage industry or federal government agencies."

This quote is so rich with irony that it is just delicious.   Certainly ceasing to do business in a community that threatens to steal all your property strikes me as a perfectly reasonable, sane response.   Calling such a response an actionable threat requiring Federal investigation just demonstrates how little respect California officials, in particular, have for private activity and individual rights.

The third paragraph might be worth an essay all by itself, classifying a voluntary private boycott as illegally coercive while treating use of eminent domain, intended for things like road building, to seize private mortgages as so sensible that it should be sheltered from any public criticism.

Quick Observations about the NFIB

The Wall Street Journal editorial page had a piece on the "smearing" of small business.  Apparently, in the political battle over Obamacare, the NFIB has become the new target of the left.

I have not seen these attacks on the NFIB, but after the bizarre joint attacks on ALEC, I certainly believe they exist.  The WSJ summarizes these attacks this way:

According to the smear campaign against the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, small businesses are thrilled with the Affordable Care Act and the trade group betrayed the 300,000 companies it represents. Among the dozens of media outlets publishing anti-NFIB op-eds disguised as reporting, Reuters recently asked in a headline, "Who truly speaks for small businesses?" The question mark was superfluous.

The chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus, Democrats Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, chimed in with a letter accusing the NFIB of acting against "the best interest of small business owners" and "the popular opinion of the American small business community." They suggest Karl Rove is behind the suit, as he is everything else.

As a member of the NFIB  (I joined several years ago specifically due to their work on health care) I believe the NFIB addresses issues that really concern our company better than any other group I have found.  Certainly they are far better than the Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be a group of large companies more interested in crony handouts than free competition.  Members get polled constantly to see what issues we care about and to see what positions we would like the NFIB to take.

This latter process makes the NFIB among the most virtuous of the organizations to which I have belonged.  Certainly the Sierra Club, way back when I was a member, never polled me on whether I preferred them to focus their efforts, say, on political activism or true conservation efforts.

I am exhausted by journalists and politicians on the Left who have barely even worked in a profit-making venture, much less run one, who speak with great authority on what small business owners should or should not want.  Our company is in the business of making long-term operations bids.  For the last three years, we have had to bid two numbers for our expenses, one with Obamacare and (a much lower one) without.  Never in 25 years of our history has any external factor, government-drive or not, made this much contingent difference to our bids.  So it is simply insulting to be told that it should not make any difference to me, or that its effects will be universally cost-reducing.

Further, it is really, really hard for a small business to parse the impact of Obamacare because it is #$&*#$ hard to figure out just what its provisions are.  McDonalds can afford to hire a team of experts to figure it out, and to start gaming it by using its political clout to seek special exemptions and treatment from the Obama Administration.  We cannot.  The NFIB is the only organization, public or private, in the country that has actually helped us understand the law's requirements.  For several years running, they have sent an expert, at their expense, to our industry gatherings to help educate companies on the law.

Why Is No One From MF Global in Jail?

Whether crimes were involved in the failures of Enron, Lehman, & Bear Stearns is still being debated.  All three essentially died in the same way (borrowing short and investing long, with a liquidity crisis emerging when questions about the quality of their long-term investments caused them not to be able to roll over their short term debt).  Just making bad business decisions isn't illegal (or shouldn't be), but there are questions at all three whether management lied to (essentially defrauded) investors by hiding emerging problems and risks.

All that being said, MF Global strikes me as an order of magnitude worse.  They had roughly the same problem - they were unable to make what can be thought of as margin calls on leveraged investments that were going bad.  However, before they went bankrupt, it is pretty clear that they stole over a billion dollars of their customers' money.  Now, in criticizing Wall Street, people are pretty sloppy in over-using the word "stole."  But in this case it applies.  Everyone agrees that customer brokerage accounts are sacrosanct.  No matter what other fraud was or was not committed in these other cases, nothing remotely similar occurred in these other bankruptcies.

A few folks are talking civil actions against MF Global, but why isn't anyone up for criminal charges?  Someone, probably Corzine, committed a crime far worse than anything Jeff Skilling or Ken Lay were even accused of, much less convicted.   This happens time and again in the financial system.  People whine that we don't have enough regulations, but the most fundamental laws we have in place already are not enforced.

Shoe on the Other Foot

Just six months ago, governments were criticizing ratings agencies for letting threats by debt security issuers cow them into keeping ratings for bad debt higher than they should be (emphasis added)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Wall Street’s two largest credit rating agencies, were roundly criticized in the Levin-Coburn Senate reportfor betraying investors’ trust and triggering the massive mortgage-backed securities sell-offs that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide independent, third-party credit assessments to help investors understand the risks in buying particular securities, debts and other investment offerings. For example, securities that have earned the highest ‘AAA’ rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) should have an “extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments” or have “a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults.” Investors would use the ratings to help evaluate the securities they’re seeking to buy.

However, the standard practice on Wall Street is fraught with conflicts of interest. In reality, the credit rating agencies have long relied on fees paid by the Wall Street firms seeking ratings for their mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), or other investment offerings. The Levin-Coburn report found the credit agencies “were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom.” Between 2004 and 2007, the “issuer pay” business model fostered conflicts of interest that have proven disastrous for investors.

I have no problem with this analysis.  But it's ironic in contrast to the very same governments' reactions to their own downgrades over the last 6 months.  In fact, the general government reaction from Washington to Paris has to be to ... wait for it ... threaten the agencies in order to keep their ratings up.  And these threats go farther than just loss of business - when the government issues threats, they are existential.  It's hard to see how the US or French government's behavior vis a vis downgrades has been any different than that of banks or bond issuers that have faced downgrades.

In general, the tone of government officials has been "what gives them the right to do this to us?"  The answer to that question is ... the government.  These self-same governments were generally responsible for mandating that certain investors could only buy certain securities if they are rated.  And not just rated by anyone, but rated by a handful of companies that have been given a quasi-monopoly by the government on this rating business.

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.