Posts tagged ‘Zero Hedge’

Other Countries Have Higher Minimum Wages. They Also Have Higher Something Else...

Kevin Drum argues our minimum wage in the US is really low

blog_minimum_wage_median

 

A few quick thoughts:

  • I have a constant frustration that we never see these comparisons just on a straight purchasing power parity absolute dollar number.  Numbers related to income distribution are always indexed to a number that is really high in the US, thus making our ratio low.  I seriously doubt Turkey has a higher minimum wage in the US, it just has a much lower median wage.  Does that really make things better there?  I have this problem all the time with poverty numbers.  The one thing I would like to see is, on a PPP basis, a comparison of post-government-transfer income of the US bottom decile or quintile vs. other countries.  Sure, we are more unequal.  But are our poor better or worse off?  The fact that no one on the Left ever shows this number makes me suspect that the US doesn't look bad on it.    This chart, from a Leftish group, implies our income distribution is due to the rich being richer, not the poor being poorer.

  • Drum or whoever is his source for the chart conveniently leaves off countries like Germany, where the minimum wage is zero.  Sort of seems like data cherry-picking to me (though to be fair Germany deals with the issue through a sort of forced unionization law that kind of achieves the same end, but never-the-less their minimum wage is zero).
  • All these European countries may have a higher minimum wage, but they also have something else that is higher:  teen unemployment (and I would guess low-skill unemployment).

click to enlarge

Admittedly this only has a subset of countries, but I borrowed it as-is from Zero Hedge.  By the way, by some bizarre coincidence, the one country -- Germany -- we previously mentioned has no minimum wage is the by far the lowest line on this chart.

Time: Sheltering America from Bad News Since 2009

Via Zero Hedge, Time's covers around the world this week.  Spot the outlier

20130916_time

 

I am actually sympathetic to the case that the NCAA should allow student athletes to make money as athletes (just as student business majors are allowed to make money in business and student musicians are allowed to make money in music).

But seriously?  Probably the highest profile, most contentious international diplomatic crisis of the last five years and Time chose not to put it on the cover this week?  There are only two explanations, and neither are good.  1)  Time felt that a story about American mis-steps might hurt sales.  or 2)  Time is protecting their guy in the White House.  The athlete cover story does not have an expiration date, so is the kind of story a magazine holds for a slow week.  It is hard to describe last week as a "slow week."

Cost and Benefit and the Fourth Ammendment

From Reuters via Zero Hedge:

The Obama administration on Thursday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.

The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.

A senior administration official said the court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.

Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.

"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.

The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

A few thoughts:

  1. I have no doubt that this makes the job of tracking terrorists easier.  So would the ability to break down any door anywhere and do random house searches without a warrant.  The issue is not effectiveness, but the cost in terms of lost liberty and the potential for abuse.  The IRS scandal should remind us how easy it is to use government power to harass political enemies and out-groups
  2. The FISA court is a bad joke, as it seems willing to issue "all information on all people" warrants.  I think there is little doubt that similar data gathering is going on at all the other carriers.
  3. Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser.  I am sure with her proven history of not just being a political puppet but really digging in to challenge White House talking points that she will quickly get to the bottom of this.

The Missing Warning Label

Zero Hedge pointed out this ad for California state bonds:

20130404_cali

 

In light of the recent Stockton bankruptcy, this should carry a warning label:  "California reserves the right to repudiate up to 100% of these bonds whenever payment of the interest or principle interferes with paying state employees the maximum possible pension benefits.  These bonds are subordinated to any promises made at any time by any politician to state employees unions, past, present, or future."

We've Gotta Keep Bailing Out Banks Because...

...uh, just because

Iceland vs Greece

via Zero Hedge

 Update:  Whenever I argue with people about this, I find out that we share different assumptions.  Those who seem to support the bailouts assume that given some breathing space, the reckoning in Europe can be avoided.  I assumed the reckoning is unavoidable, and will come either soon or at best in the next cyclical downturn.  And it will be far worse in, say, 2015 than it would have been in 2010.  Every time we delay the reckoning, we make it far worse.

And then there are politicians.  I don't think they honestly know or care if the reckoning is unavoidable. They only care if it does not happen this minute.  For politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.  Future pain is thus always better than current pain.

Looking for Something to Short? Here's a Suggestion:

Via Zero Hedge and the WSJ:

The $604 million issue from consumer lender Springleaf Financial, the former American General Finance, will bundle together about $662 million of loans secured by assets such as cars, boats, furniture and jewelry into ABS, according to a term sheet. Some loans have no collateral.

Personal loans haven't been a part of the mainstream ABS market since securitizations from Conseco Finance Corp. in the late 1990s, according to Michael Dean, co-head of Fitch Ratings' ABS group. That market dried up as the recession hit and, under the weight of bad subprime loans, Conseco filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

Springleaf's issue comes as prices on traditional issues backed by auto loans, credit cards and student loans have soared as investors pile into debt with extra yield over Treasurys. As those yields fall, ABS investors have been giving unusual assets that were previously shunned a second look....

The 190,627 loans in the Springleaf deal have an average FICO credit score of 602, in line with many subprime auto ABS. But the average coupon of 25% on Springleaf's personal loans is above that on even "deep subprime" auto loans, probably because there is no collateral for 10% of the issue, an analyst said.

Bonus points for AIG's involvement in this offering  (btw, now that AIG has repaid obligations to taxpayer, expect a corporate name change in 3..2..1..)

We had a credit bubble in part where the market likely under-priced certain risks.  Bubble bursts and risks take their toll.   Economy floundered.  The Fed reduced interest rates to zero.  Frustrated with low interest rates, investors have begun seeking out risk, likely driving down the price of risky investment.  Repeat.

Consumer Reactions to Higher Gas Prices

It is interesting to me that the government has chosen to subsidize the least desirable actions

via Zero Hedge

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.

Risks of QE

So far, I have mainly been concerned about inflationary risks from quantitative easing, which is effectively a fancy term for substituting printed money for government debt (I know there are folks out there that swear up and down that QE does not involve printing (electronically of course) money, but it simply has to.  Operation Twist, the more recent Fed action, is different, and does not involve printing money but essentially involves the Fed taking on longer-term debt in exchange for putting more shorter term debt on the market.

Scott Minder in the Financial Times highlights another potential problem:

In 2008, just before the first of two rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve had $41bn in capital and roughly $872bn in liabilities, resulting in a debt to equity ratio of roughly 21-to-one. The Federal Reserve’s portfolio had $480bn in Treasury securities with an asset duration of about 2.5 years. Therefore, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would have caused the value of its portfolio to fall by 2.5 per cent, or $12bn. A loss of that magnitude would have been severe but not devastating.

By 2011, the Fed’s portfolio consisted of more than $2.6tn in Treasury and agency securities, mortgage bonds and other fixed income assets, and its debt-to-equity ratio had dramatically increased to 51-to-one. Under Operation Twist, the Fed swapped its short-term securities holdings for longer-term ones, thereby extending the duration of its portfolio to more than eight years. Now, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would cause the market value of the Federal Reserve’s assets to fall by about 8 per cent, or $200bn, leaving it insolvent, with a capital deficit of about $150bn. Hypothetically, a 5 per cent rise in interest rates could cause a trillion dollar decline in the value of the Federal Reserve’s assets.

As the economy continues to expand, the Federal Reserve will eventually seek to normalise monetary policy, resulting in higher interest rates. In this scenario, the central bank could find that the market value of its portfolio has declined to the point where it no longer has enough sellable assets to adequately reduce the money supply and maintain the purchasing power of the dollar. Given US dependence on foreign capital flows, if the stability of the dollar is drawn into question, the ability of the US to finance its deficits may falter. The Federal Reserve could then find itself the buyer of last resort for Treasury securities. In doing so, the government would become hostage to its printing press, and a currency crisis or runaway inflation could take hold.

George Dorgan observes, on the pages of Zero Hedge, that European countries are taking even large balance sheet risks.  The most surprising is the Swiss.

Obama Bravely Fighting Against Deleveraging

I found this chart interesting, but am not entirely sure what conclusion to draw (via Zero Hedge)

In 2009, I think most everyone understood that the economy would have to reduce debt and that this process would be painful in terms of creating years of slow growth.  The good news from this chart is that the financial and consumer deleveraging has indeed been occurring, so at least our pain is not for naught.  The debate that will likely go on for years after this recession is whether the rapidly increasing Federal debt helped or hurt:  did it help offset the cost of the private deleveraging, or did it drag out the recession by keeping total debt levels from dropping?  Is it private debt that matters, or total debt?  Of course this makes the analysis more complicated.

 

Cost of Green

From Zero Hedge:

Why should we worry about 5c or 10c on a gallon of fuel down the local gas station when the US Navy (in all her glory) is willing to pay a staggering $26-a-gallon for 'green' synthetic biofuel(made we assume from the very same unicorn tears and leprechaun nipples that funded the ESM). AsReuters reports, the 'Great Green Fleet' will be the first carrier strike group powered largely by alternative fuels; as the Pentagon hopes it can prove the Navy looks just as impressive burning fuel squeezed from seeds, algae, and chicken fat (we did not make this up). The story gets better as it appears back in 2009, the Navy paid Solazyme (whose strategic advisors included TJ Gaulthier who served on Obama's White House Transition team) $8.5mm for 20,055 gallons on algae-based biofuel - a snip at just $424-a-gallon.

In its defense, the Navy Secretary said, ""Of course it costs more.  It's a new technology. If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, we'd still be using typewriters instead of computers."  Of course, the switch from typewriters to computers proceeded without government mandates (or taxes, as they are called now) and in fact was led by the private sector -- the government trailed in this transition.  Further, people paid the extra money for a computer because they found real value in it (document storage, easy editing, font flexibility).  What real value is the Navy getting for the extra $22 a gallon?  How much better will this task force perform?  The answer, of course, is zero.

Kill the Messenger

Breaking news via Zero Hedge

EU LAWMAKERS APPROVE AMENDMENT TO END USE OF CREDIT RATINGS

It is always amazing to me that so many people view the government as a reasonable fix for perceived failures in private accountability systems.  Government officials are the worst about avoiding accountability.

Update:  The point that Basel II/III has big discrete jumps in capital requirements for small shifts in bond ratings is a reasonable observations.  Smoothing this out makes sense, but there is more than this that needs to be fixed in the Basel requirements (particularly the now largely dated idea that any assets are "risk-free"), which played a huge but largely unsung role in inflating the demand in the last decade for AAA rated mortgage bonds.

Today's Chart Award

This is my favorite chart I have seen in a while:

I don't know how one would even think to graph these two variables, but it is an interesting picture of the life cycle of development, where infrastructure improvements are initially an important part of the development equation, and then fall off, percentage wise, as wealth is enhanced with softer goods.

Anyone off the chart on the high side are going to be what I would call the triumphalists, who do what Thomas Friedman seems to want and pour a disproportionate share of money into high-visibility monuments (e.g. tall buildings, dams, bridges, high speed rail, etc).  I don't see Dubai on here but if they were they might be off the top of the chart.

Zero Hedge links this chart to make a point they have made for a while about a massive bubble bursting coming soon to China, a position with which I agree (though the timing is always a question in such things -- the state has the ability to delay the reckoning at the cost of a worse crash when it eventually comes).

Disclosure:  I am short Chinese real estate and stock funds.

California Schadenfreude

From Zero Hedge:

The hoped-for April spike in personal income tax revenues for the State of California fell once again below theoveroptimistic assumptions used to get the budget to “balance.” Instead of the $9.4 billion that the government had counted on collecting in April, it only collected $7.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. A 21% shortfall! In addition, corporate taxes were $450 million below forecast. After months of “disappointing” tax revenues, the total shortfall in income taxes now amounts to $3.5 billion for fiscal 2012 ending June 30.

The budget, supposedly balanced when it was passed last summer, had been spewing red ink from day one. Tax revenues were one problem. Expenditures were the other. The most recent re-revisions pegged the deficit at $9.2 billion. That was a few weeks ago. Now it’s going to be re-re-revised to nearly $12 billion.

Just how bankrupt does a budgeting process have to be for a budget that is supposedly in balance turn out to be $12 billion overdrawn barely 9 months later?  I have a California state tax refund on my desk -- better cash it quick or else its going to be replaced by scrip again.

The same article has this interesting tidbit about California high speed rail:

The CHSRA plan assumes that it would cost 10 cents per passenger mile (the average cost of carrying one passenger one mile at a given load factor) when international high-speed rail systems averaged 43 cents per mile, according to a report that just surfaced. The low-cost leader was Italy with 34 cents per mile; at the upper end were Germany and Japan with 50 cents per mile; Amtrak’s Acela Express, though not truly high speed, was in the middle with 44 cents per mile. And in California, it’s going to be 10 cents per mile?

The CHSRA correctly assumes that train tickets compete with air fares and the cost of driving, which, despite our incessant complaints, are lower in California than overseas. Thus, the US market requires cheaper tickets. And to make the project appear profitable, and thus more digestible for the taxpayer, the CHSRA lowered its projected operating costs to less than a quarter of the international average.

But if actual operating costs are 43 cents per mile and not 10 cents per mile, annual subsidies of $2 billion to $3 billion would be required just to keep the trains running, according to the report. Yet, AB3034, the California High-Speed Train Bond Act, makes these subsidies illegal. A conundrum that the Legislature, the Administration, and the CHSRA have so far successfully ignored.

Bad Economy + High Minimum Wage + Lifetime Employment =

via Zero Hedge

 

 

 

The Goldman Sachs Strategy

For a while now, a few authors have been quipping at Zero Hedge that the best investment strategy is to do the opposite of what Goldman Sachs is telling is retail customers.  The theory is that if Goldman tells the public to buy, it means that they are selling like crazy for their own account.

This seemed a bit cynical, but on Friday Zero Hedge observed that Goldman was telling its retail customers to buy European banks.  This advice seemed so crazy -- the European agreement last weekly explicitly did not contain anything to help banks in the near term with over-leveraged bets on shaky sovereign debt -- that for the fun of it I played along.  I shorted a couple hundred shares of EUFN, a US traded fund of European financial firms (took a bit of work to find the shares to borrow).

Made 6% in one day.  Thanks Goldman.

Feds Make Illegal What We Already Thought Was Illegal

Via Zero Hedge

today, in a unanimous vote, "The U.S. futures regulator approved on Monday a rule that puts tighter limits on how brokerage firms can use customer funds, a measure that the now-bankrupt MF Global had encouraged the agency to delay." In other words, while before commingling client accounts was assumed to be a clear violation of every logical fiduciary imperative, now it is set in stone. For real. The CFTC means it.

In the past, I believed that a lot of financial regulations were honest (though often misguided) attempts to create transparent and trustworthy markets.  I am increasingly being pushed to the cynical conclusion that financial regulations, like, say, licensing of funeral homes, are mainly aimed at making it impossible for small competitors to survive, while larger competitors either have the scale to pay for compliance departments, or in the case of MF Global, have the political muscle to get themselves exempted (by Administrations of both parties, I should be clear, though the current one certainly gets a hypocrisy award for standing beside OWS while handing out finance and health care law exceptions to the powerful).

MF Global is far worse in my mind than, say, Enron.  In Enron's case, the management was at least mostly pursuing the activities and investments that they were supposed to be pursuing.  They were making bets of the type shareholders expected, though they were likely masking the cost and risk of these bets by aggressive pushes at the margins of accounting rules.

MF Global was doing exactly what everyone supposedly knew to be an absolute no-no, ie using client funds to make leveraged bets for their own account.  If Joe Schmoe in Florida did the same thing, he would already be incarcerated.  In the case of MF Global, no one even seems to be interviewing Corzine and so far the bankruptcy committee has put a higher priority on repaying JP Morgan and Goldman for Corzine's bad bets than on getting investors' money back.

"Unexpectedly"

From Zero Hedge

 in 2011 initial and continuing [unemployment] claims have been revised higher the week following [their initial release] 91% and 100% of the time, respectively. A purely statistical explanation for this phenomenon is "impossible."

Wow.  Something like 50 out of 50 times, the Administration has under-estimated the economic bad news in its statistics.  Just bad luck, I guess.

Bailed Out Banks Take On More Risk

I found this fascinating, if unsurprising, via Zero Hedge:

Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura of the University of Michigan looked at the U.S.’ Capital Purchase Program. You may recall that this became the centerpiece of TARP once Hank Paulson decided that the money would be better spent directly buying into the banks as opposed to overpaying them for dodgy asset-backed bonds. (Mind you, other parts of TARP were spent overpaying for dodgy asset-backed bonds.)

The CPP lasted a little more than a year and invested $205 billion of taxpayer funds into various qualifying institutions. Not every bank that filled out the 2-page application was successful in gaining access. Others were approved but ultimately decided not to take the funds (probably because of the attached restrictions on pay and on paying out dividends.) In the end, 707 financial institutions received the funds.

Duchin and Sosyua looked at a sample of 529 public firms that were eligible for CPP and slotted them into categories based on whether they applied, whether they were approved and whether they ultimately took the money. They controlled for non-random selection (via measures of the banks’ financial condition, performance, size and crisis exposure); for changes in national and regional economic conditions; and finally for potential distinctions in credit demand.

They then viewed the banks’ CPP participation status in comparison with their subsequent risk appetite as demonstrated by (1) their consumer mortgage credit approvals or denials (viewed on a risk-profile controlled, application-by-application basis); (2) their participation in syndicated corporate loans for riskier credits and; (3) the risk profile of their investment asset portfolios. What did they find?

They found more risk, across the board.  There is a lot of detail, so I will leave it to you to go to the source for more, but Zero Hedge concludes:

The bail-out itself increased our chances of having the bail the banks out all over again. Moral hazard is no longer in the realm of the abstract

A few months ago I went through an unbelievable hassle refinancing my loan.  Based on current appraisals, my loan to value was less than 50%, but I still ended up coming to the table with more equity to reduce the new loan size.  I was staggered at how hard it was to close what should have been a dead-safe loan, given the LTV and my income and credit history.  The study actually has a finding related to that:

For mortgages the bailed-out banks increased their risk–

“after CPP capital infusions, program participants tilted their credit origination toward higher-risk loans by tightening credit standards for the relatively safer borrowers and slightly loosening them for riskier borrowers.”

–while at the same time ensuring that they didn’t trip off any alarms

“This pattern would be consistent with a strategy aimed at originating high-yield assets, while improving bank capitalization ratios, since the key capitalization ratios do not distinguish between prime and subprime mortgages.”

This is a fascinating sort of metric manipulation.  Having my loan go from 45% to 40% LTV does nothing, really, for the overall safety of the bank, but it improves their averages and makes them look safer, while all the way they are actually engaging in more risky behavior.

The Great Bailout

Peter Tchir via Zero Hedge

The AIG moment was the first time that the US threw any pretense of real capitalism out the window.  Bear Stearns at least was done by JPM with government help.  Fannie and Freddie were taken over, but they were always quasi government entities.  It was AIG that was truly special.  The government didn't even attempt to see if the banks had managed their exposures at all.  The government didn't even care if they had.  They panicked and saved the banks from their own folly - they didn't give capitalism a chance.  The US has never truly recovered from that.  The entire system looks to government support more and more.  Since AIG the Fed has been running at least one massive easing program or another constantly.  The government is lurching from spending program to spending program to keep the economy churning.

At the first signs of weakness we beg for the FED or ECB or the government to do something big and fast.  The European credit crisis seemed a final chance to put some capitalism back into capitalism.  To allow dumb decisions to pay the price for failure.  To reward the institutions that had properly navigated through the risks.  There was even a brief moment when it looked like Germany would do that - would force those who failed to pay the price and support those who had taken the best steps.  But now with Dexia bailed out and some super SIV on the way, it looks like we are once again heading down a path of not allowing failure - in fact we are once again rewarding failure and living beyond your means.  It isn't communism, but it certainly doesn't fit any classic definition of capitalism.

Federal Financing Bank?

Bruce Krasting at Zero Hedge has been on the case of the Federal Financing Bank.  I am still unclear if the agency is actually providing the cash or just the guarantee, but it was the one rolling out the Solyndra loan (under DOE auspices, I suppose).

In July, it was still sending cash of some sort to Solyndra - it may be that this was just a drawdown of money under its original loan commitment, or it may be new money.  A couple of things you can see are:

  • A heck of a lot of money was still going out the door to solar programs, likely with no oversight
  • Ford, the supposedly bailout-free company, sure seems to be gobbling up a lot of government guaranteed loans for something.
  • We were lending to Solyndra at 0.89% interest.
All told, a whopping 3/4 of a billion dollars of government guaranteed loans to private companies went out the door in July alone.
Other observations from the report:  The report is hard to read, as it is hard to correlate the new financing activity to changes in the balance sheet.  But there is just a ton of loan activity to rural electric companies.  Wasn't rural electrification an issue in the 1930's?  Isn't it time to let rural electric companies stand on their own two feet and get their own money from the capital markets?
There is also a lot of activity issuing HOPE for Homeowners money - it looks like the government is lending (to banks?) at 0.01% interest.  What is the difference between a 0.01% thirty year loan and a gift?

Solyndra Bankruptcy Process

I thought this article from Zero Hedge was a pretty good window into the bankruptcy process for those of us unfamiliar with what goes on.  The most interesting point is that by allowing Argonaut to cut ahead of taxpayers as the senior creditor, the Obama Administration virtually ceded control of the bankruptcy process to Argonaut.  Argonaut has put up the debtor-in-possession financing as well, and the combination of these two positions gives it pretty tight control of the process going forward

The plan put forward is a four-week sale of the company. The logic behind this very rapid schedule is that Solyndra is still burning cash at the rate of $1mm a week. How long will the $4mm DIP financing last? Four weeks. The terms of the DIP makes it a sure thing that Solyndra is going to be sold ASAP. That sounds good. But not for the DOE.

The one-month period is a very short time frame. The likely result will be that no serious alternative buyer will appear. Should that happen, the senior creditor will get all of the assets of the company at the end of 30 days. That would be Argonaut. It's possible that Argonaut will end up owning a company that lists $850mm in assets for less than $100mm.

I am not sure taxpayers were ever going to get anything out of this mess -- the combination of a high-cost manufacturing plant with me-too technology in a commoditized business was never going to be wildly valuable -- but the Administrations decision to allow Argonaut to jump the seniority line has pretty much assured that whatever value that might be there will go to Argonaut and not the taxpayers.

Postscript:  Someone might argue that the decision in February to allow Argnaut the senior position was required to get them to put up the $75 million that was necessary at the time to keep operating.  I am positive this is true, given the condition of Solyndra finances at the time.  However, the right answer at the time was to shut the thing down then, while the US had seniority and before Argonaut cleaned out all the assets of value (as they did this summer, selling inventories and receivables to themselves).  The company had no real prospects of ever making money when it was first financed two years ago and certainly did not in February.  The $75 million in February was less financing and more a pre-emptive bid for the company's carcass in the inevitable bankruptcy, and it will likely play out exactly this way.

Update:  I have read that Argonaut may be interested in the $500 million of tax losses.  These are tricky to use, and only Argonaut of all potential buyers could reasonably make use of them.  These might be worth $150 million in avoided taxes, so the $75 million price might make sense.  If Argonaut pulls this off, it would mean that the decision to accept their $75 million in financing is even more costly to the taxpayers.  Not only did they miss out on whatever value might be in the company, but it also created the opportunity for $150 million in tax avoidance that comes right out of Uncle Sam's coffers.

When Investors Have Police Forces

I have argued many times that private investors, over the long haul, will make better investment choices than the government, in part because they have better incentives and information to guide their decision-making.  The straw-man argument against this is to point out anecdotes of failed private investments.  Heck, I can do that.  Pets.com famously blew through $300 million of private capital with a corporate strategy that never made much sense to people.

The Pets.com investors were chagrined, and probably learned a lesson from their mistake.  Certainly most of us thought the blame, if blame existed, for the debacle rested on the investors for pouring money into a bad proposition.  Certainly no one accused the management of fraud -- I am sure they were diligently, honestly trying to make the company a success, even if they were misguided as to where that success lay.

As it turned out, everyone, not just the Pets.com investors, learned from the mistake.  The failure was an important driver in an industry-wide rethink as to what a successful Internet business model might look like.  This benefit only came because people were willing to acknowledge not just that the Pets.com investment was flawed, but that it represented a systematic mistake that was being made vis a vis Internet startup investments.

Now, consider solar manufacturer Solyndra.  It failed this week, likely taking with it most of $535 million in taxpayer money that the Obama Administration was so eager to give them that it short-cutted its internal processes to fork over the cash more quickly.

Many of us on the outside would love to see the government rethink such investments in a systematic way, and reconsider if it is even possible for the government to make such investments, and in particular whether "green jobs" investments make any sense at all.

But the likelihood of that kind of introspection happening in the public world is about zero, and my bet is that Obama is going to propose more of the same tonight in his speech.

In fact, the Department of Energy (the source of the loan) and the FBI have today sent armed agents into Solyndra looking for evidence of fraud.   While Zero Hedge argues that fraud would be bad for Obama, in fact I think it would probably be the best possible outcome and one he is hoping for.  If he can say, "wow, you and I both got tricked here by some evil folks we are going to put in jail" it deflects attention from the fact that he put a half billion dollars of taxpayer money into a business plan that never made a lick of sense.

Another me-too solar manufacturer with a factory in California of all places was never going to compete in a global commodity market.  This company's plan was always to sell dollars for 50 cents and to make it up on volume.  I don't see how any investor thought this was going to work.  My guess is that the private investors didn't know much about solar and invested because it had a certain hip-ness to it, or less charitably, they knew it never made sense but hoped that Uncle Sam, once it was already in for a half billion, would keep more money flowing or perhaps agree to buy out their production at above market prices.

There may have indeed been fraud, but as in the case of Pets.com, it is perfectly possible no real internal fraud existed and they ran through a ton of money against a stupid business plan that should never have been funded.  Obama would greatly prefer to call it fraud rather than his own failure of judgement.  As an aside, Fannie and Freddie are pursuing exactly the same course in suing banks, arguing that they were defrauded by the banks in buying mortgages, a fairly laughable proposition in the great scheme of things when one considers Fannie and Freddie were at the forefront of the industry in driving down lending standards and promoting the expansion of the mortgage market.