Posts tagged ‘bankruptcy’

This May Finally End NHL Hockey in Arizona

Let me bring you up to speed:  The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, having taken them over in bankruptcy.  It needs to sell the team and is demanding $200 million for the team, having promised the league owners it would not accept anything less (so they will not take a loss in the investment).  The team is worth, however, something like $100 million, at least if it stays in Arizona.

The team plays in a stadium built by the relatively small city (250,000 people) of Glendale, which put something like $300 million of taxpayer money into the stadium and has provided operating subsidies to the team the last several years that probably total another $100 million, at least.  The city has a bad hand, but keeps doubling down on its bet to try to retain the team.

The problem, of course, is the $100 million difference in the bid-ask for the team.  Glendale first tried to fix this by agreeing in a previous deal couple of years ago to basically give the buyer $100 million of taxpayer money to bridge the bid-ask gap.  The Goldwater Institute sued, saying that the Arizona Constitution pretty clearly states the government can't directly subsidize commercial interests.  They prevailed (before it ever reached court) and the deal died.

The only way left for Glendale to make the deal happen was to give a buyer $100 million in taxpayer money but to do so in a more disguised manner.  The one option they had was in the stadium management contract.  If they agreed, say, to pay the buyer $10 million a year over market rates for the stadium management contract, over 15 years that has about a $100 million present value.  They can get away with this because there is no objective valuation of what a management contract would cost on the open market.

But their ability to do this is, thankfully, about to die.  Under intense pressure, and in a fit of good government that I am sure Glendale regrets, it actually went out and sought arms-length contracts for stadium management from third parties.  It is enormously unlikely the city will accept any of these bids, because it needs the stadium contract as a carrot for someone to buy the Coyotes at the NHL's inflated price.  Besides, I bid on large contracts a lot and I have often been presented with bid packages from an entity that had no intention of awarding, but wanted me to go through all the bid effort just to establish an internal price benchmark or to keep their preferred provider honest.  I can smell these from a mile away now.

The problem Glendale will have, though, is that when these 3rd party bids become public (which they inevitably will), it will then be impossible to hide the implicit subsidy in the management contract.  Presumably, taxpayers then will push back on any future deals using this dodge, though Glendale citizens seem pretty supine so one never knows.  Also, the city can also tweak the responsibilities of the stadium contract, thereby allowing them to claim that comparisons against these past bids are apples and oranges (though this will be hard as I expect arms-length bids around $5 million a year vs. $15 million they propose to pay the team buyer).

PS-  It is hilarious to see worried comments from Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) about how hard on Glendale it will be if the Coyotes leave town.  Merely lowering his asking price to something less than 2x the market price would solve the problem in an instant.

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."

Fisker Considering Bankruptcy

What a surprise -- apparently forced to make their case to private investors now rather than just DOE bureaucrats whose main criteria is "did this company support President Obama in the last election", Fisker is having trouble raising money and may declare bankruptcy.

Totally Depressing

I found this article on foreclosed homeowners vindictively trashing houses now owned by the bank to be really depressing.  An example quote:

Myra Beams, a realtor in Tamarac, Fla., said half of her foreclosed properties, regardless of the price range, have been vandalized by the former owners. "I think the former owners are angry, and for some reason, they think they're entitled to destroy properties," said Beams. "I guess they're angry at the banks for giving them the mortgage."

There is a lot more like that.  A couple of quick thoughts

  • The sense of entitlement here is stunning.  It is these homeowners, not the bank, that failed to fulfill their end of the bargain.  Who is the guilty party here, anyway?
  • These folks are lucky to live in the US -- we have the most lenient home mortgage system in the world.  Very, very few other countries in the world have no-recourse mortgages where one can walk away only with a ding on their credit record, without even a personal bankruptcy.  Almost anyplace else, they would be facing years of garnishments for whatever losses on the loan the bank had after they sold the home.
  • I always thought the critique of lower income people "trashing" housing projects in the 70s and 80s had a vaguely racial tone to them, as if this were somehow a proof of African-Americans being shiftless and irresponsible.   But here we have white middle class people actively trashing their homes.  Proving once again that being an inconsiderate jerk is truly a multi-racial, multi-ethinic behavior.

Update on Steve Rattner, Friend of Investors (as long as they are rich or voted for Obama)

Last week, I noted a piece by Steve Rattner who was horrified that individual investors, empowered by companies like Kickstarter, might one day be able to invest in startups without paying a fee to Goldman Sachs.

I noted that Mr. Rattner's concern for investors seemed to be coming rather late, given that "he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters."

A Detroit News piece by my Princeton classmate Henry Payne has more:

The administration has treated obstacles to its agenda with ruthless tactics. In April 2009, that agenda was to hand an outsized, 55 percent majority interest of embattled Chrysler to the United Auto Workers in a government-orchestrated bankruptcy. But by law secured creditors are first in line in bankruptcy, and bondholders — representing their working-class pension clients — refused to accept Obama's unfair deal for a measly 29 cents on their investment dollar.

Send in the muscle.

"One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight," said Tom Lauria, lawyer for Perella Weinberg investment firm, on Frank Beckmann's Detroit radio program. Lauria later said the brass knuckles belonged to White House Auto Task Force leader Steve Rattner. Lauria's account was disturbing, too, in revealing the confidence that the White House has in its press allies to aid Obama's agenda. Sure enough, Washington reporters quickly attacked the messenger. "(Lauria's) charge is completely untrue," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told ABC News' Jake Tapper, "and there's obviously no evidence to suggest that this happened in any way." Actually, there was plenty of evidence. Jim Carney of Business Insider corroborated Lauria's account, reporting that "sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well." The White House escalated the threats when Obama himself singled out creditors for obstruction, accusing them of being "speculators" preying on an American auto icon — bullying words from a man with the IRS and SEC at his disposal.

"The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler, say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler," continued the Insider. "One person described the administration as the most shocking 'end justifies the means' group they have ever encountered."...

"The president's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him," wrote Cliff Asness, a managing partner at AQR Capital Management. "Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power."

Congressional Ethics

I am sick and tired of politicians impugning the ethics of private individuals engaged in commerce.   There are certainly a small minority of fraudsters in the world of business, but there is a supermajority of unethical people in Congress, arguably approaching 100%.

My latest evidence for such is this article in the Washington Post about the ethical bankruptcy of the Federal budgeting process.  It is impossible to excerpt, but here is a representative example:

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

By law, the next census is not until 2020.  There was never, ever going to be a census in 2011.  But Congress claimed $6 billion in savings for not having one none-the-less.  Here is more:

In the real world, in fact, many of their “cuts” cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also “cut” a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist....

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

You can impugn business ethics all you want, and I can add a few stories to yours, but I have worked at fairly senior positions in two Fortune 50 companies and as a worker bee in a third, and in all three it would be a firing offense to engage in this kind of Charlatanism.

More in my Forbes article from 2 years ago.

Cronyism and the GM/Chrysler Bailouts

Companies and assets don't go *poof* in a bankruptcy.   In fact, if any of you are even somewhat of a frequent airline flyer, over the last 10 years you likely flew an airline in bankruptcy.  Companies operate all the time, sometimes for years, out of Chapter 11.  In fact, that is what chapter 11 is all about -- helping creditors get more value from a company by keeping it in operation  (only in truly hopeless cases, like Solyndra, is liquidation a higher value outcome for creditors than continued operation).

As such, then, the Obama Administration did not "save" GM and Chrysler, it simply managed their bankruptcy to political ends, shifting the proceeds from those guaranteed them by the rule of law to cronies and political allies.  In the process, they kept these companies on essentially the same path that led them to bankruptcy in the first place, only with a pile of taxpayer money to blow so they could hang around for a while.

To this end, the WSJ has a great editorial on the whole mess

In a true bankruptcy guided by the law rather than by a sympathetic, rule-bending political task force, GM and Chrysler would have more fully faced their competitive challenges, enjoyed more leverage to secure union concessions, and had the chance to divest money-losing operations like GM's moribund Opel unit. True bankruptcy would have lessened the chance that GM and Chrysler will stumble again, a very real possibility in the brutally competitive auto industry.

Certainly President Obama threw enough money at GM and Chrysler to create a short-term turnaround, but if the auto makers find themselves on hard times and return to Washington with hats in hand, his policy will have been no rescue at all.

I will refer the reader back to my editorial way back in 2005 why it was OK to let GM die

And You Thought The Solyndra Handouts Were Over

Via the WSJ, the Solyndra scam continues

Having sold off its manufacturing plant, fired nearly 1,000 workers and proven the non-viability of its business model, Solyndra's only real assets are what the IRS calls "tax attributes." These are between $875 million and $975 million in net operating losses that can reduce future taxable income, which the IRS values as high as $350 million. Before it went toes up, Solyndra also accumulated $12 million in solar tax credits that can reduce tax liabilities dollar for dollar.

Tax-loss carry-forwards are routine but worthless if a company can't turn profits to pay taxes on. So Solyndra's owners are asking the court to liquidate the rest of the business and contribute a net $6.7 million to pay off creditors for pennies on the dollar. A holding corporation will then emerge from Chapter 11 that won't make products or employ workers, but it will get the Solyndra tax offsets.

The dummy company is owned by Argonaut Ventures I LLC, Solyndra's largest shareholder and the primary investment arm of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Mr. Kaiser is a Tulsa oil billionaire who bundled campaign checks for Mr. Obama in 2008.

Wow, who could have predicted this?   Well, lots of folks, including me just over a year ago.   I actually underestimated the value, assuming the losses would be worth about $150 million in avoided taxes, not the $350 million the IRS now pegs them at.  If I can figure out this game, the Obama Administration had to know what was going on.

If the Administration allows this to happen (and remember that in the GM boondoggle,  Obama waived the traditional rules that have bankrupt companies losing their tax loss carryforwards, giving GM a multi-billion dollar tax subsidy almost no one counts in the bailout costs), this will make Kaiser's last cash investment in Solyndra one of the great crony deals of all time.

If you remember, Kaiser (via Argonaut) invested $75 million as Solyndra was going down the tubes.  No rational person could have thought that amount would have saved the company, and it didn't.  What it bought, we now know, is three things:

  • Kaiser got the US Government to give up their lead creditor position to Kaiser, basically putting the US Government behind the Obama donor to get repaid and reducing the taxpayers' influence in the bankruptcy
  • It gave Kaiser a few precious months to loot the company.  Between that $75 million investment and the bankruptcy, Solyndra sold off most of its liquid assets at a discount to .... Argonaut, the group controlled by Kaiser
  • It looks like Kaiser will get nearly a billion dollars in tax losses that can be used to reduce its future taxes by $350 million.

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.

Why We May Be Bailing Out Chrysler Again

I work in a small, four-story suburban office building.  I have seen our fire drills and can look out at our parking lot, and I would be surprised if there are 200 people in the building.    A few months ago some division of Chrysler moved in and took a bunch of the space.   A lot still remains empty (which is why I am here -- cheap!)

The Chrysler folks put a sign downstairs a few days ago saying that they would be hosting a luncheon for the building.  Great, I thought, a free hot dog and some fruit salad.  Imagine my shock when I saw this when I arrived today:

Chrysler sent three full semi-trailers, one of cars and two of convention-type booths and displays, plus a whole crew of people to set this up, all for a lunch in our building with less than 200 people.  I thought maybe that we were just getting a preview of a larger public event, but I am looking out my window now and they are tearing down again.  Crazy.

One thing that even many libertarians get wrong:  Wasting money is not unique to government entities.  Private and public entities can become senescent, and grow bureaucracies that lose focus on what they are supposed to be doing.  The difference between the private and the pubic sphere, though, is that for private companies, markets eventually enforce discipline (either forcing change or killing off the bloated entity).   There is no similar mechanism for state agencies short of perhaps absolute bankruptcy, and Greece is proving even that is not enough to force change.

Of course, when the government gives large private entities with political pull special protections and bailouts, then no such accountability is enforced.  The same people are operating the company with the same false assumptions and unlearned lessons.

Enjoy the NFL This Weekend, You May Not Have It For Long

I think Walter Olson is dead on with this:

Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune looks at the cultural and legal responses to the mounting evidence that professional football inflicts brain damage on many of its players. He quotes my view that if the litigation system carries over to football the legal principles it applies to other industries, the game isn’t likely to survive in its current form.  [sorry for quoting the whole thing Walter, I just couldn't figure out how to excerpt it]

There is a very good chance that the NFL could go the way of Johns Manville or Dow Corning.  Those companies still exist after being sued into bankruptcy, but that is only because they had other businesses to shift into.  The NFL just has football.  And after reading the concussion stories recently, plaintiff's lawyers are going to have a hell of a lot better scientific case than they had with breast implants.    I honestly think it will take an act of Congress to keep the NFL alive, giving them some sort of liability exemption similar to what ski resorts got years ago.

And don't think the NFL does not know this.  If you are wondering why they handed out insanely over-the-top penalties for bounty-gate in New Orleans, this is why.  They are working to establish a paper trail of extreme diligence on player safety issues for future litigation.

As an aside, I find it frustrating that there is not a better helmet solution.

As a second aside, there is a guy here in Phoenix who was showing off an accelerometer for football helmets, with some kind of maximum single g-force or cumulative g-force trigger that would cause a player to be pulled from a game, sort of like how a radiation badge works.  Good idea.  Look for these to be mandatory equipment in high schools in colleges.    Takes the absurd guess work out of concussion diagnosis today, particularly since this diagnosis is done by people (the player and their team) who have strong incentives to decide that there was no concussion.

As a third aside, there are those who argue helmets are the problem.  Just as people drive less safely with seat belts and air bags in cars, helmets lead to less care on the field.  I will say I played rugby for years (without a helmet of course) and never had one concussion, or any head hit anywhere close to a concussion.  In amateur rugby in the leagues I played in, reckless behavior that might lead to injuries was strongly frowned upon and punished by the group.  Teams that played this way quickly found themselves without a game.  There were plenty of ways to demonstrate toughness without trying to injure people.

Too Big To Fail

Just in case you believed all the BS around the passage of Dodd-Frank that in the future there would be no such thing as too big to fail, just look at yesterday's JP Morgan hearings in Congress.  

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday interrogated J.P. Morgan Chase Chief Executive James Dimon in a much-anticipated and sometimes-heated exchange after the bank registered more than $2 billion in derivatives losses

No one grills Exxon-Mobil executives when the company loses a couple of billion to a nationalization somewhere or grills Sears executives as the blunder their way towards bankruptcy.  These are private business losses.  The only reason to grill JP Morgan is if Congress still considers the American taxpayer to be ultimately on the hook for trading losses (above and beyond deposit insurance requirements, which the Bear Sterns and AIG bailouts certainly were).

Another One Bites the Dust

Another solar company which received $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama Administration has gone bankrupt.  The good news is that it has not spent much of that taxpayer money, and its bankruptcy is probably due more to the bankruptcy of its German parent, which in turn is likely related to the huge cuts Germany has made in its feed-in tariff subsidies.

The big asset possessed by Solar Trust is the Blythe solar project, a planned 1000MW facility that apparently has all of its permitting in place.  The Blythe facility was originally going to be a solar-thermal facility, with adjustable mirrors focusing the sun on a central boiler that would in turn power turbines.   This plan was scrapped last year in favor of a more traditional PV technology, and I know local company First Solar has been hoping to save itself by getting the panel deal (First Solar also has been hammered by the loss of German subsidies).

If we take the cost of this planned 1000MW facility as the stated $2.8 billion (of which 2.1 billion would be guaranteed by US taxpayers), we see the basic problem with solar.   A new 1000MW  natural gas powered electric plant costs no more than about $1 billion.  It produces electricity 24 hours a day.  This solar plant, to be the largest in the world, would produce 1000 MW for only a few hours of the day.  That area of desert gets about 7 peak sun hours per day (the best in the country) so that on a 24 hour basis it only produces 292 MW average.  This gives it a total capital cost per 1000 MW of $9.6 billion, making it approximately 10 times costlier than the natural gas plant to build.  Of course, the solar plant has no fuel costs over time, but solar is never able to close the gap over time, particularly with current very low natural gas prices.

Update:  Apparently the $2.8 billion was just for the initial 484 MW so you can double all the solar costs in the analysis above, making the plant about 20x costlier than a natural gas plant.

Eating Your Seed Corn

I found this to be one of the most immoral statements I have read in a long time (bold added)

Saez and Diamond argue that the right marginal tax rate for North Atlantic societies to impose on their richest citizens is 70%.

It is an arresting assertion, given the tax-cut mania that has prevailed in these societies for the past 30 years, but Diamond and Saez’s logic is clear. The superrich command and control so many resources that they are effectively satiated: increasing or decreasing how much wealth they have has no effect on their happiness. So, no matter how large a weight we place on their happiness relative to the happiness of others – whether we regard them as praiseworthy captains of industry who merit their high positions, or as parasitic thieves – we simply cannot do anything to affect it by raising or lowering their tax rates.

The unavoidable implication of this argument is that when we calculate what the tax rate for the superrich will be, we should not consider the effect of changing their tax rate on their happiness, for we know that it is zero. Rather, the key question must be the effect of changing their tax rate on the well-being of the rest of us.

From this simple chain of logic follows the conclusion that we have a moral obligation to tax our superrich at the peak of the Laffer Curve: to tax them so heavily that we raise the most possible money from them – to the point beyond which their diversion of energy and enterprise into tax avoidance and sheltering would mean that any extra taxes would not raise but reduce revenue.

Another way to state the passage in bold is, "if one can convince himself he will be happier with another person's money than that other person would be, it is not only morally justified, but a moral imperative to take it."

This is the moral bankruptcy of the modern welfare state laid bare for all to see.  Not sure if this even deserves further comment.  Either you see the immorality or you bring a lot of very different assumptions about morality to the table than I.  For those of you who accept the quoted statement, how are you confident you will always be the taker, the beneficiary?  You might be if the box is drawn just around the US, but from a worldwide perspective all you folks in the American 99% may find yourselves in the world's 1%.

And from a purely practical standpoint, while I suppose one might argue that the total happiness in this particular instant could be maximized by taking most all the rich's marginal income, what happens tomorrow?  It's like eating your seed corn.  Taking capital out of the hands of the folks who have been the most productive at employing capital and helicopter dropping it on the 99% feels good right up until you need some job creation or economic growth or productivity improvement.

To this day, over 30 years after I had it explained in economics class, I am still floored by the line I read in the introductory macro textbook describing the Keynesian manipulation of Y=C+I+G+(X-M) to demonstrate a "multiplier" effect.  The part that I never could get over was at the very beginning when they said "I, or Investment, is considered exogenous" - in other words, the other variables could be freely manipulated, the government could grow and deficit spend as much as it liked, and investment would be unaffected.  Huh?

My memory was that Keynesians considered "I" a loser.  They felt anything that was not G or C actually acted as a drag, at least in the near term (in the long run we will all be dead).  This despite the fact that "I" is the only thing that grows the pie over time.

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.

Another Bankrupt Obama Investment

Via Business Week

 Beacon Power Corp., an energy- storage company that received $43 million in backing from the U.S. program that supported failed solar-panel maker Solyndra LLC, filed for bankruptcy after struggling to raise private financing.

The money-losing company, which makes flywheels that manage energy moving through a power grid, had sought to avoid the fate of Solyndra, which entered bankruptcy last month after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from a U.S. Energy Department program designed to spur alternative energy development. Beacon faced delisting of its shares by the Nasdaq Stock Market and warned in an Aug. 9 regulatory filing that it might not remain a “going concern.”...

In addition, Beacon received $29 million in grants from the U.S. and Pennsylvania for a 20-megawatt plant in that state and hired Group Robinson LLC to help raise more funds for the $53 million project. Group Robinson, a Menlo Park, California- based renewable-energy consulting company, also was helping Beacon find customers outside the U.S.

This is not an accident.  By definition, the government is investing in companies that every other private lender and investor turned down.

More on Solyndra

I was going to leave this topic behind, but I just couldn't resist after Krugman's bit of snark on the topic.   Please see my new Forbes column here.  One bit, actually off topic from the rest of the article, that I added as a postscript:

Perhaps the worst Administration decision of the entire Solyndra affair has yet to receive adequate scrutiny.  Just 6 months before Solyndra failed, the Administration allowed Argonaut, the largest shareholder, to grab the senior debtor position from the US taxpayer in exchange for $75 million in new financing.  The Administration’s argument was the loan was needed to buy time, but buy time for what?  Solyndra’s relative cost position was getting worse, and it was experiencing a huge loss on every unit sold.  No one involved has been able to say what the company was counting on to save it in the 6 months this loan bought it, except perhaps the opportunity to cajole another half billion out of the US taxpayer.

But the loan did accomplish two things.  First, it gave Solyndra time to sell every liquid asset it owned that might have been of value to…. Argonaut.  And once this bit of self-dealing was complete and the company was cleaned out, the bankruptcy process could be entirely controlled by Argonaut such that it will likely end up with all the assets, most important of which seems to be a $500 million dollar tax loss carryforward.  If Argonaut can take advantage of these tax shelters, it will end up costing the US taxpayer an additional $150 million or so.

In short, the taxpayer got rolled.  Again.

Update:  Marc Morano:

 'When we had (Gulf) oil spill, we immediately had moratorium on off shore drilling. The oil industry was demonized & literally shut down'

'But after the green energy debacle, they are being feted and rewarded -- $9 billion more is being sent out to 14 more companies...Solar power is less than 1% of our electricity, yet this is being feted'

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.

Major Justification for GM Bailout Falls Apart

As GM was failing, I argued for the normal laws of bankruptcy to be allowed to work.  After all, valuable brands and manufacturing facilities were not just going to go *poof* -- someone would purchase them and employ them, and hopefully those someone's would to a better job than the previous owners and managers.

A big part of the "logic" for bailout and Presidential intervention in the auto companies was that auto purchases would halt if consumers were unsure whether their warranties would be honored and service would be available.

From an AP story, November 13, 2008

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Industry supporters are offering such grim predictions as Congress weighs whether to bail out the nation's largest automakers, which are struggling to survive the steepest economic slide in decades....

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

Well, it turns out that this was partially bogus.  The written warranties are still honored, but GM argues it left liability for any defects or design problems in the old shell company

General Motors Co (GM.N) is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit over a suspension problem on more than 400,000 Chevrolet Impalas from the 2007 and 2008 model years, saying it should not be responsible for repairs because the flaw predated its bankruptcy.

The lawsuit, filed on June 29 by Donna Trusky of Blakely, Pennsylvania, contended that her Impala suffered from faulty rear spindle rods, causing her rear tires to wear out after just 6,000 miles. [ID:nN1E7650CT]

Seeking class-action status and alleging breach of warranty, the lawsuit demands that GM fix the rods, saying that it had done so on Impala police vehicles.

But in a recent filing with the U.S. District Court in Detroit, GM noted that the cars were made by its predecessor General Motors Corp, now called Motors Liquidation Co or "Old GM," before its 2009 bankruptcy and federal bailout.

The current company, called "New GM," said it did not assume responsibility under the reorganization to fix the Impala problem, but only to make repairs "subject to conditions and limitations" in express written warranties. In essence, the automaker said, Trusky sued the wrong entity.

"New GM's warranty obligations for vehicles sold by Old GM are limited to the express terms and conditions in the Old GM written warranties on a going-forward basis," wrote Benjamin Jeffers, a lawyer for GM. "New GM did not assume responsibility for Old GM's design choices, conduct, or alleged breaches of liability under the warranty."

Of course, this happens all the time in bankruptcy  (and it is my experience, but I am not a legal expert) that GM may or may not succeed in this argument.  It is not always possible to leave liabilities behind in an old corporate shell, or else companies would reorganize every year.

But the point is that the special treatment of GM was supposed to be to protect consumers, and that turns out to be BS.  The warranties were likely always going to be protected in any bankruptcy, as such consumer benefits nearly always are in chapter 11 (the fact that you still hold any frequent flyer miles is proof of this, as nearly every airline in the country has been through chapter 11 in the last couple of decades and none of them disavowed their frequent flyer miles, despite the fact that holders are the most unsecured of unsecured creditors).

 

Pretty Brazen, Even for a Politician

I have often described this statist feedback loop:

  • Create government program
  • Government programs messes up certain aspects of the market
  • Blame such messes on "failure of markets" or capitalism or even the rich, rather than the government program
  • Create new government program to fix problem created by last program
  • Repeat

Obama's new political strategy seems to be even more brazen

  • Democrats pass new program over Republican objections
  • New program has unseemly subsidies for rich people
  • Blame subsidies on Republicans, to the point of using subsidies as example of bankruptcy of Republican party

Specifically, tax breaks for corporate jets:

The chief economic culprit of President Obama’s Wednesday press conference was undoubtedly “corporate jets.” He mentioned them on at least six occasions, each time offering their owners as an example of a group that should be paying more in taxes.

“I think it’s only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well,” the president stated at one point, “to give up that tax break that no other business enjoys.”

But the corporate jet tax break to which Obama was referring – called “accelerated depreciation,” and a popular Democratic foil of late – was created by his own stimulus package.

Which is not to say that the losers in the Republican party would not likely have supported the same plan had it been their idea.

By the way, this is nearly exactly what Obama has been doing with those so-called special subsidies for oil companies.  This subsidies are in fact the identical tax breaks that all manufacturers receive that allow them to accelerate expensing of capital investment.  This is a tax policy that has enjoyed bipartisan support and no one is suggesting should be eliminated in general -- just eliminated for industries that have bad PR.

Things You Should Know About Student Loans in Advance

Every person considering student loans should make sure they understand what is in this post from Megan McArdle.  Americans are spoiled, to some extent, by non-recourse home loans (ie, unlike in the rest of the world, they can't come after assets to pay the loan beyond the house itself) and pretty generous terms for escaping credit card debt.  These cause us to forget that most other types of lenders out there are pretty hard-ass about actually, you know, getting paid back.

I never held any student debt, so I was not aware of many of the facts she provides, but my guess is that many people who do have student debts aren't that aware either.  Here is the most important part:

I don't know why Mystal thought I was only talking about federally guaranteed loans, or that I didn't understand that his debt had been sold to a collector, but there you are. If I had thought that he was talking only about federally guaranteed loans, I would simply have said "Mystal is dangerously deluded and needs to issue a correction immediately before someone gets a very harmful idea from his post."  Federal loans don't settle.  Period....

Private lenders have more incentive to settle, but not a great deal more. Most unsecured debt, like credit card balances, personal loans, and medical bills, can and will be settled for pennies on the dollar--as low as ten cents in some cases (though this usually means that they don't have any verification of the debt, so I wouldn't take a settlement this low.) It's not unheard of for a credit card collector to take 25 cents on the dollar on a valid debt, and 50 cents on the dollar is eminently achievable for many people.

But my understanding is that student loans are the great exception to this rule. Why? Student loans are not bankruptable, not even private ones. A collector for normal sorts of unsecured debt is always working with the threat of bankruptcy in the background; if you try to hold out for full repayment, the debtor can always file Chapter 7. In most cases, that means that unsecured creditors get nothing.

But that's not the case with student loans. There are only two ways to erase the debt: prove you're permanently disabled and will never again earn more than a pittance; or die

To Which I Would Add One More Concern

Don Boudreaux had these two rejoinders to the notion that the GM bailout is a success simply because GM is making a profit.

Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health.  Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses.  Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so.  No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

Economically literate bailout opponents argued also that it sets a bad precedent.  By signaling to big corporations that government stands ready to pay the tab for the consequences of their poor decisions, big corporations will more likely make poor decisions in the future.  It’s far too early for Mr. Dionne to conclude that this prediction is mistaken.

I would offer a third concern -- that the government has kept hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and billions of dollars of physical assets under the management of the same group that have decidedly underutilized these assets in the past.  A bankruptcy without Federal intervention would likely have shifted assets and skilled workers into new companies with different management teams and cultures pursuing different strategies with different information.

I always have trouble explaining this issue to people.   Think of a sports team with great players but a lousy coach and management team.  Having the government ensure that the lousy management stays in control of the great players is a waste for everyone.  I explained it more in depth in this post, where I concluded

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

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA...

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Really This Much Value Left?

Dish Network is going to buy Blockbuster out of bankruptcy for $320 million.  I am frankly floored there is that much value.  I have found that one can make a surprising amount of money riding an obsolete business down over the years if it is managed correctly -- but this is generally for product businesses.  Retail businesses are really hard to ride down because you need to be closing stores every year and that is hard to do cost-effectively given typical lease terms.  Never-the-less, I expected the winning bid to be from a liquidation company, someone like the folks who took wound down Circuit City.

But the purchase by Dish Network implies that the buyer wants to continue operating Blockbuster in some form, and the identity of the buyer implies some sort of on-demand or streaming service.  But what does Blockbuster offer?  Is the brand valuable in this context, or a liability?   Does it have customer loyalty with a segment (old people?) who have so far shied away from Netflix / Hulu?  Does Blockbuster have favorable royalty / licensing contracts with studios that are transferable to other video delivery models?

If I had to guess, I would bet on the latter.  There have been examples of whole businesses built from legacy contracts.   One of the best examples is a little noticed contract Carl Icahn had with TWA, which spawned a huge new travel agency and later really helped to build Priceline.com.  Here was the story:

When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as Lowestfare.com.  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, Lowestfare.com could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the Lowestfare.com URL was bought by … Priceline.

I wonder if Blockbuster has something of similar value in their royalty / licensing agreements?

Auto Bailouts and the Rule of Law

Todd Zwicki has a great article on the auto bailouts.  Here is a brief excerpt of a long and very comprehensive article.

Of the two proceedings, Chrysler's was clearly the more egregious. In the years leading up to the economic crisis, Chrysler had been unable to acquire routine financing and so had been forced to turn to so-called secured debt in order to fund its operations. Secured debt takes first priority in payment; it is also typically preserved during bankruptcy under what is referred to as the "absolute priority" rule — since the lender of secured debt offers a loan to a troubled borrower only because he is guaranteed first repayment when the loan is up. In the Chrysler case, however, creditors who held the company's secured bonds were steamrolled into accepting 29 cents on the dollar for their loans. Meanwhile, the underfunded pension plans of the United Auto Workers — unsecured creditors, but possessed of better political connections — received more than 40 cents on the dollar.

Moreover, in a typical bankruptcy case in which a secured creditor is not paid in full, he is entitled to a "deficiency claim" — the terms of which keep the bankrupt company liable for a portion of the unpaid debt. In both the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, however, no deficiency claims were awarded to the wronged creditors. Were bankruptcy experts to comb through American history, they would be hard-pressed to identify any bankruptcy case with similar terms.

To make matters worse, both bankruptcies were orchestrated as so-called "section 363" sales. This meant that essentially all the assets of "old Chrysler" were sold to "new Chrysler" (and "old GM" to "new GM"), and were pushed through in a rush. These sales violated the longstanding bankruptcy principle that an asset sale should not be functionally equivalent to a plan of re-organization for an entire company — what bankruptcy lawyers call a "sub rosa plan." The reason is that the re-organization process offers all creditors the right to vote on the proposed plan as well as a chance to offer competing re-organization plans, while an asset sale can be carried out without such a vote.

In the cases of GM and Chrysler, however, the government essentially pushed through a re-organization disguised as a sale, and so denied the creditors their rights. As the University of Pennsylvania's David Skeel observed last year, "selling" an entire company of GM or Chrysler's size and complexity in this manner was unprecedented. Even on a smaller scale, it would have been highly irregular: While rush bankruptcy sales of much smaller companies were once common, the bankruptcy laws were overhauled in 1978 precisely to eliminate this practice.

At first, the fact that the companies' creditors (and especially Chrysler's creditors, who were so badly mistreated) put up with such terms and waived their property rights seems astonishing. But it becomes less so — and sheds more light on how this entire process imperils the rule of law — when one considers the enormous leverage the federal government had over most of these creditors. Many of Chrysler's secured-bond holders were large financial institutions — several of which had previously been saved from failure by TARP. Though there is no explicit evidence that support from TARP funds bought these bond holders' acquiescence in the Chrysler case, their silence in the face of a massive financial haircut is otherwise very difficult to explain.

Indeed, those secured-bond holders who were not supported by TARP did not go nearly as quietly.

The Chicago Political Paradigm

Over the last few weeks I have been following the story of the city of Glendale, AZ, in order to protect a previous $200 million public investment in our hockey team, proposing to issue another $100 million bond issue to help subsidize the purchase of the hockey team out of bankruptcy.

The real furor began when the Goldwater Institute, a local libertarian-conservative think tank, said they were considering suing over the bond issue because it violates the gift clause of the Arizona Constitution, which basically bans municipal governments from providing direct subsidies or lending their credit to private institutions.  The gift clause has been frequently breached in the past (politicians do love to subsidize high-profile businesses), but of late Goldwater has successfully challenged several public expenditures under the gift clause.

I won't rehash the whole argument, but I found this bit from Senator McCain interesting

He called on the Goldwater Institute, a Valley watchdog that intends to sue to block the deal, to sit down and negotiate to keep the team

The buyer Matthew Hulsizer and his staff have taken this position throughout the deal -- they have lamented that they are more than willing to "negotiate" with Goldwater, and they are frustrated Goldwater won't come to the table with them.

This claim seems bizarre to me. If Goldwater thinks the deal is un-Constitutional, what is to "negotiate?" I don't know Hulsizer or anything about him, but it strikes me that he is working from a Chicago paradigm, and is treating Goldwater as if it were a community organizer. In Chicago, community organizers try to use third parties to protest various deals, like the opening of a Wal-Mart or a new bank. These third-parties are nominally protesting on ideological grounds, but in fact they are merely trying to throw a spanner in the works in order to get a pay off from the deal makers, almost like a protection racket. The payoff might be money or some concession for the group (e.g. guarantee of X% jobs for this group in project, $X in loans earmarked for group, etc).

Everything I have seen tells me Hulsizer is approaching Goldwater in this paradigm.  Even going out and rounding up the most prominent politician in the state (McCain) to put pressure on Goldwater is part of this same Chicago paradigm.

Here by the way  is what Hulsizer is apparently offering

As one part of the deal, Glendale would sell bonds to pay Hulsizer $100 million, which the Chicago investor would use to purchase the team for $210 million from the National Hockey League.

Hulsizer said he notified Goldwater he would guarantee the team will pay Glendale at least $100 million during its lease on the city's Jobing.com Arena through $75 million in team rent and fees and by covering $25 million in team losses that the city promised to pay the NHL this season, which is included in the hockey team's purchase price.

"We need to move forward now," he said. "I expect that Goldwater and other people who have come out against this deal will hopefully recognize the benefits of it and will now use all of that energy and tenacity and aggressiveness to go out and help us sell these bonds and make hockey work in the desert forever."

Hulsizer said Goldwater had not yet responded to him.

By the way, I hesitate to trust the Arizona Republic to report such deal terms correctly, but if what is reported above is correct, the offer appears to be non-sense

  1. What kind of guarantee is he offering?  Is it a guarantee by the corporate vehicle buying the team, because if it is, this is worthless.   The last team ownership group promised to pay the lease for 30 years -- what does that mean once they went bankrupt?  I am sure Borders Books promised to pay a lot of real estate owners money for leases, and many of them are going to end up empty-handed in the bankruptcy.  If this is a personal guarantee, that is a nice step forward, though not enough because....
  2. The $75 million in rent is largely irrelevant to the new bond issue -- these rents support the old $200 million bond issue.  What they are saying is "issue a new $100 million bond issue for us and we will guarantee you can make 40% of the payments for the old bond issue."   So?  When Balsillie wanted to move the team, he didn't ask for an additional bond issue and agreed to pay off $50 million of the old one as an exit fee.
  3. At the end of the day, if the $100 million is not a subsidy, not at risk, and fully backed by guaranteed cash flows, then Hulsizer should go out and get a $100 million private loan.  Period.

Unfortunately, this might be enough to get the deal through the courts.  Glendale will argue that for the $100 million, they will get $100 million paid against their existing bond issues that would not otherwise be paid if the team folds or leaves town.  This may fly with the courts, unfortunately, but it still sucks for taxpayers.   At the end of the day, nothing about this offer makes the $100 million bond issue any safer.   If the team goes bankrupt, it is lost.  That is an equity risk the city is taking with taxpayer funds, and equity risk for which we are getting no equity.  See here for full discussion of the risks and problems.

Postscript: The following is pure speculation, but I think it is close to correct.  The team is worth about $110 million at best (remember, it has never made money in AZ).  Forbes values it at $117 million but several similar franchises have sold for under $100 million lately.   The reason it is selling for $210 million is that the NHL, which bought it out of bankruptcy, guaranteed its other owners the league would not lose a penny on the team.   But the team has been racking up losses, and the accumulated cost to the NHL is now $210 million.  The NHL is insisting on a price that is $100 million north of where it should be.  In effect, the taxpayers of Glendale are bailing out the NHL for this crazy promise to its owners.

I can just see the negotiation.  Hulsizer, who by every evidence is a savvy financial guy, is not going to pay $210 million for an asset worth $110 million.  Glendale has way too many chips on the table to fold now, so it rides in and says it will contribute the $100 million difference.  In fact, the best evidence this is a subsidy is the difference between the purchase price and any reasonable team value.  Someone has to make up the ridiculous gap between the NHL asking price and reality, and Hulsizer is too smart to do it.   I have been calling this a subsidy of Hulsizer, but in fact this is really a subsidy of the NHL.   The NHL has Glendale by the short hairs, because Glendale knows (from the Balsillie offer, among others) that the only way the NHL can get a $210 million price is from a buyer who wants to move the team.

This, by the way, is EXACTLY the reason I opposed the original stadium funding deal.  Once they built the stadium, and then went further and lured businesses to develop around it, they were wide open to blackmail of this sort.

The problem with doubling down at this point is that the team has never made money and has no real public plan for doing so.  I have talked to NHL executives and none of them see how the turnaround is possible.  So how many years will it be before the new owners tire of their plaything and throw the team back into bankruptcy, so that Glendale will be in the exact same spot except $300 million, rather than $200 million, in debt.