Posts tagged ‘debt’

Fixing Tesla

I promised I would not post any more Tesla for a while, and to some extent I am keeping that promise -- no updates here on the SEC investigation or the 420 tweet.  But since I have been critical of Tesla in the past, I thought I would acknowledge that there are good things in Tesla that could and should be saved.  The problem is that Tesla is saddled with a bunch of problems that are NOT going to be solved by going private.  In fact, going private could only make things worse -- given that Tesla already has too much debt and its debt is rated barely above junk bonds, piling on more debt just to save Elon Musk from short sellers is not a good plan.  Here is what I would suggest:

  1. Find the right role for Elon Musk.  Musk HAS to be part of the company, without him its stock would go to about zero tomorrow.  But right now he is CEO, effective head of media relations, factory manager, and chief engineer.  Get him out of day to day management (and off Twitter) and hire real operating people who know what they are doing
  2. Get rid of the dealerships.  Tesla tried to do something different, which is own all the dealerships rather than franchise them out.  This is fine if one has some sort of vision for doing sales and service differently, but Tesla really doesn't.  It does the same things as other car dealerships but just slower since it has not been able to build out capacity fast enough.  And this decision has cost them a tons of growth capital they desperately need, because they have had to build out dealerships most car companies get for "free" because the capital for the dealerships is provided by third-party entrepreneurs.  Also, the third-party entrepreneurs bring other things to the table, for example many of them tend to have experience in the car sales business and a high profile in their local markets with government and media.
  3. If possible, find a partner for the charging network.  All traditional car companies get their fueling networks for free because the network is already built out by the oil companies.  Tesla is building its own, and again this is sucking up a lot of capital.  It is also dangerous, because Tesla has chosen to pursue a charging standard that may not become the industry standard (this is already happening in Europe) and Tesla risks being stuck with the betamax network.  Tesla should see if it can shift this to a third party, perhaps even in joint venture with other EV companies.
  4. Do an equity raise.  To my mind, it is absolute madness Tesla did not do this earlier in the year.   Their stock was trading at $350 and at a $50+ billion valuation at the same time they were burning cash cash at a rate of $3 billion or so a year.  Musk says he can skate through without more capital but he has said this before and it was not true.  Given the enthusiasm for his stock, there is just no reason to run cash poor when there are millions of Tesla fanboys just waiting to throw money at the company.  Even a $5 billion raise would have been only 10% dilution.  Musk says he wants to burn the shorts but ask any Tesla short out there what they would most fear, and I think they would all say an equity capital raise.  $3-5 billion would get Tesla at least through 2019 no matter how bad the cash burn remained and give the company space to solve its operational problems.
  5. Get someone who knows how to build cars building the cars.  I have written about this before -- it is always hard when you are trying to be a disruptor of an industry to decide what to disrupt and what industry knowledge to incorporate.  In retrospect, Musk's plan to ignore how cars are built and do it a different way is not working.  Not only are the cost issues and throughput issues, but there are growing reports of real quality issues in model 3's.  This has to be fixed ASAP.
  6. Bring some sanity to the long-term product roadmap.  This may be a bit cynical, but Tesla seems to introduce a new product every time Musk needs to divert the public's attention, his equivalent of yelling "Squirrel!"  There is the semi, a pickup truck, a roadster and probably something else I have forgotten about.  Even the model 3 lineup is confusing, with no one really knowing what Tesla is going to focus on, and whether the promised $35,000 model 3 will ever actually be built.  This confusion doesn't work well with investors at all, but Tesla has been able to make it work with customers, increasing the buzz around the company because no one ever seems to know what it will do next.  But once real competitors start coming out from GM, Volvo, Jaguar, BMW and others, this is not going to work.  Customers that are currently captive to Tesla will have other options.    Let's start with the semi.  The demo was a beautiful product, but frankly there is no way Tesla is going to have the time or the money to actually produce this thing.   Someone like Volvo is going to beat them to the punch.   They need to find a JV partner who can actually build it.

Update:  If I had a #7, it would be: Invent a time machine and go back and undo the corrupt SolarCity buyout, in which Tesla bailed out Musk's friends and family and promptly proceeded to essentially shut down the company.  Tesla shareholders got nothing from the purchase except a lot of debt.

 

My End Game Prediction for @Tesla ($TSLA) if They Really Do Go Private at $420

Readers know I am in the campground business.   Years ago there was a trend towards building super-luxury campgrounds for as much as $30,000 a camp site.  I never understood how anyone could get a return from this.  Finally I had a guy from a large campground and RV park REIT tell me, "You know how you make money on a $30,000 a site campground?  You wait for it to go bankrupt and buy it for $5,000 a site."

This is what I think the end game for Tesla may be.  I just don't think there is enough available capital in the world, and enough operational focus in Elon Musk, to see their way through to bootstrapping an entirely new worldwide automotive firm, including new dealerships, manufacturing plants, charging networks, etc.  Remember, Tesla does not just need capital for R&D and manufacturing, they also need it for the whole sales / service / fueling network.  Kia, for example, can grow with less capital because it can get independent business people to invest in the service and dealer networks and rely on existing gas stations for the fueling network.  Tesla must build all of this from scratch because of choices they made early in their development.

Even without an LBO, I think they were going to fail at this (despite having some good products) and others disagree with me.  But given the amount of debt that an LBO at $420 might take, and the subsequent rejection of the largest public capital markets, I don't think there is any way Tesla could head off a failure.  People who want to lionize Elon Musk forget that SolarCity was headed for exactly this same kind of cash crunch, only to be bailed out by a crony insider transaction with Tesla (much to the detriment of Tesla shareholders).

Right now, GM, Ford, Daimler .. pretty much any of the auto majors, would do well by buying Tesla.  It would help them with an instant presence in the BEV market and it would help Tesla by solving some of the sales and service investment and manufacturing operations problems they have.  But Tesla is just too damn expensive.  Right now the company is worth more than either GM or Ford.

I see the future after at $420 LBO as a failure in 24 months followed by a purchase by an auto major thereafter.

Musk's Proposed Tesla LBO Price of 420: Intentionally Hilarious? My Guess Is Musk Wants An LBO Without Any Actual Change in Ownership

Today, following his usual practice of ignoring all the securities laws that other CEO's have legions of lawyers to educate them on, Musk teased a possible Tesla LBO in a series of tweets.  In case you are wondering, it is not generally considered best practice in legal compliance to issue such information in cryptic tweets, and it is definitely not usual to do so while the stock is actively trading.  You can read the whole story here, though it continues to evolve as the market has finally halted trading in Tesla.

Here is the part I found funny watching this in real time:

Mr. Musk’s account tweeted at 12:48 p.m. ET: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” It isn’t clear what prompted the tweet. Mr. Musk has a history of joking on Twitter and sending erratic tweets.

About 30 minutes later, the account tweeted “420” in response to a reporter’s tweet asking what price buyers might pay.

When this came out, I honestly thought "420" was an admission by Musk of a drug-induced mental state when the previous tweet went out, but in fact it appears to be his target price for the LBO.  Some quick thoughts

  • This would fit Musk's personality, as he seems unable to ignore those shorting Tesla stock and would get the twin satisfactions in such a deal of a) burning a lot of current shorts and b) making shorts irrelevant in the future as going private ends the active market for the company.
  • The implied valuation would be insane, something like $75 billion in equity (compared to GM and Ford which are both around $50 billion) plus $9 billion or so of assumed debt.  Tesla is already at the breaking point on debt so it is unclear where the funding would come from -- LBO's generally increase leverage and Tesla needs to decrease it, and needs a lot more capital for operations and growth going forward.  But Musk claims he has the deal funded already.
  • Part of the clue to the capital availability may be the Saudis.  It was revealed today that the Saudi's own just under 5% of Tesla' stock.
  • Here is what I think Musk wants -- he wants an LBO without any actual change in ownership.  Basically he wants to create Tesla New, which will be private and not trade on the markets.  He is hoping that all his current fanboy shareholders will exchange a share of Tesla for a share of Tesla New.  Musk has already said he will do this with his 20%.  In the extreme case, if every current shareholder wants in on the new private company, then no capital at all is needed for the LBO.  Musk might admit that perhaps a billion or two are needed to buy out the few recalcitrants at $420, and then all the Tesla fanboys can enjoy short-seller-free illiquidity.

This is great for those who want out, but for those who are in for the long haul, it seems like a lot of capital just to remove short sellers from the picture.  This is a company that does not have anywhere near enough capital to do the things it has already promised to do (China plant, model 3 ramp, $35,000 model 3 car, semi, pickup truck, two-seater, battery storage projects, revive SolarCity, etc.).  For those who think that the capital will always be there for Musk, just remember SolarCity, which was close to bankruptcy and in steep decline when Musk engineered the insider deal with Tesla.

Update:  This statement from a Morningstar analyst makes no sense to me:

Taking it private would allow the billionaire “to not constantly worry about going to the public markets for more money,” Mr. Whiston said. “He can do what he needs to do behind closed doors and keep growing the company without all that extra scrutiny.”

I get the second part -- Musk would love to avoid the extra scrutiny -- Theranos probably survived years longer as a private company than it ever would have as a public company.  But I don't understand how it stops the need to go to the public markets for more money.  Cash needs are driven by Tesla growth plans and they still need a LOT more.  Going private does not make this easier, it makes it harder by cutting off one huge source of capital (public markets) and potentially loading up the company with extra debt from the privatization transaction.

Your In-Office Entertainment This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy

From Market Watch, but you see the same article everywhere:

This year, like last year, Social Security’s trustees said the program’s two trust funds would be depleted in 2034.

For the first time since 1982, Social Security has to dip into the trust fund to pay for the program this year.

This is like sticking a knitting needle in my eye every time I read it.  Repeat after me:  There is no trust fund.  If it ever existed, it is gone.

OK, I will admit that it does technically exist -- there is a government account for it.  But the trust fund is full of just one asset:  government IOU's to itself.  When Social Security was collecting more money in taxes than it spent on benefits, the extra cash flowed into the trust fund.  Then Congress immediately took the cash out and spent it on... whatever, and left behind an IOU.   I suppose the government pays interest to itself on this debt, but this interest just goes back around in a circle to cover the interest that was just paid out.

Imagine you had a piggy bank where you collected money for a rainy day.  Then one day you wanted a new TV and you took $1000 out of the piggy bank to pay for it, leaving an IOU in the piggy bank for $1000.  I guess you could technically say to yourself that you still had $1000 in assets in the bank, but what good is an IOU to yourself?  I suppose you could even pay yourself interest.  You could take $20 out and then put it back in as interest.  Wouldn't that feel like progress!

This is what the government has done.  You can read numerous articles online that will say that in the case of the trust fund these IOU's are somehow different and really have value.  Here is the simplest way to think about it:  Imagine to cover benefits in a particular year the Social Security Administration needs $1 billion above and beyond Social Security taxes.  If the trust fund exists, the government takes a billion dollars of government bonds out and sells them to private buyers on the open market.  If the trust fund didn't exist, the government would .... issue a billion dollars in bonds and sell them to private buyers on the open market.  In either case, the government's indebtedness to the outside world goes up by a billion dollars.  I will confess there are some technical issues that might differ in the two cases -- perhaps there are different implications for the two approaches on the government debt limit.  But that is just a procedural issue -- in reality there is no economic difference between the two cases.  If there is no economic difference between the trust fund existing and not existing, then in my mind is effectively does not exist.

US Trade Deficit: Foreigners Are Consuming US Goods, But Consuming Them in the US (So They Don't "Count" As An Export)

Via Don Boudreaux:

Greg Ip writes that “The U.S. runs a trade deficit because it consumes more than it produces while its trading partners, collectively, do the opposite” (“How the Tax Cut President Trump Loves Will Deepen Trade Deficits He Hates,” April 19).

Here is how I like to explain why this is wrong.  The trade deficit exists in large part because foreigners are more likely to consume the American-made goods and services they buy right here in the US, rather than take them back to their home country, while US consumers tend to bring foreign goods back to America to consume them.  Let me unpack this.

First, over any reasonable length of time, payments between countries are going to balance.  If this were not true, there would be some mattress in China that has trillions of dollar bills stuffed in it, and no reasonable person nowadays just lets money sit around lying fallow.  There are some payments between countries for each others' goods.   And there are some payments for each others' services.   And there are some payments for various investments.  All these ultimately balance, which makes fixating on just one part of this circular flow, the payments for physical goods, sort of insane.  If we have a trade "deficit" in physical goods, then we must have a trade surplus in services (which we do) and in investments (which we do) to balance things out.

But what do we mean by an investment surplus?  It means that, for example, folks from China are spending more money in the US for things like real estate and buildings and equipment -- either directly or through purchases of American equity and debt securities -- than US citizens are buying in China.  But note that another name for investment is just stuff that foreigners buy in this country that stays in this country and they don't take back home.  If a Chinese citizen buys a house in Los Angeles (something that apparently happens quite a bit), that is just as much "consumption" as when I buy a TV made in China.  But unlike my TV purchase (which counts as an import), because of the arbitrary way trade statistics are calculated, selling a Chinese citizen a house in LA does not count as an export because they keep and use the house here.  Let's say one Chinese person sells 10,000 TV's to Americans, and then uses the proceeds to build a multi-million dollar house in Hawaii.  This would show up as a huge trade deficit, but there is no asymmetry of consumption or production -- Chinese and American citizens involved in this example are producing and consuming the same amounts.  The same is true when the Chinese build a manufacturing plant here.  Or when then invest capital in a company like Tesla and it builds a manufacturing plant here.

Our bizarre fixation on the trade deficit number would imply that, if trade deficits are inherently bad, then we would be better off if the Chinese person who bought the house in LA dismantled it and then shipped the material back to China.  Then it would show up as an export.  Same with the factory -- if we fixated on reducing the trade deficit then we should prefer that the Chinese buy the equipment for their factory here but have it all shipped home and built in China rather than built here.   Is this really what you want?

I am willing to concede one exception -- when Chinese use trade proceeds to buy US government debt securities.   This is where my lack of formal economics training may lead me astray, but I would say that the US government is the one major American institution that is able to consume more than it produces.  Specifically, by running enormous deficits it is able to -- year in and year out -- allow people to consume more than they produce.  Trade proceeds from foreigners that buy this debt in some sense help subsidize this.

However, I don't think one can blame trade for this situation.  Government deficits are enabled by feckless politicians who pander to the electorate in order to be re-elected, a dynamic that has little to do with trade.  I suppose one could argue that by increasing the demand for government securities, foreigners are reducing the cost of debt and thus perhaps enabling more spending, though I am not sure politicians are at all price sensitive to interest rates when they run up debt -- as a minimum their demand curve is really, really steep.   There is a relation between government borrowing and trade but the relationship is reversed -- Increased borrowing will tend, all things being equal, to increase the value of the dollar which will in turn make imports cheaper and exports more expensive, perhaps increasing the trade deficit.

It Pays To Have Good PR: Compared to Jeff Skilling, Elizabeth Holmes Gets Slap On the Wrist for Outright Fraud

Jeff Skilling was convicted of fraud and fined $50 million dollars and given 20+ years in jail.  Elizabeth Holmes -- for fraud that is way more obvious and for which she is clearly directly accountable -- will get no jail time, a fine of a half million dollars, loss of some voting shares in the company, and a ten year moratorium on being a director or officer of a public company.  From the SEC press release:

The complaints allege that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani made numerous false and misleading statements in investor presentations, product demonstrations, and media articles by which they deceived investors into believing that its key product – a portable blood analyzer – could conduct comprehensive blood tests from finger drops of blood, revolutionizing the blood testing industry.  In truth, according to the SEC’s complaint, Theranos’ proprietary analyzer could complete only a small number of tests, and the company conducted the vast majority of patient tests on modified and industry-standard commercial analyzers manufactured by others.

The complaints further charge that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani claimed that Theranos’ products were deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense on the battlefield in Afghanistan and on medevac helicopters and that the company would generate more than $100 million in revenue in 2014.  In truth, Theranos’ technology was never deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense and generated a little more than $100,000 in revenue from operations in 2014.

These are only the highlights of the many, many repeated knowingly grossly fraudulent statements made by Holmes over a span of several years, and this does not even include her harassment of whistle blowers who tried to go public with the fraud.  This isn't a case of creating an offshore JV that shifted some debt off the balance sheet -- its the case of lying blatantly about the company's technology and financials for years and years.

Update:  6/15/2018 Holmes criminally indicted for fraud.  I should have listened to Ken White at Popehat -- he always says that the wheels of justice in the US Attorney's office grind slowly, but they do eventually make progress.

A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

This is, plus or minus, a reprint of an article on trade policy written 12 years ago at our Chinese sister publication, Panda Blog.

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  We Chinese send our resources, our capital, and the output of our most productive workers overseas to be enjoyed by American consumers, and what do we get in return?  A trillion dollars or so of foreign exchange surpluses that our government invests for 2% returns in US government bonds.  Yes, that's right -- not only are we subsidizing American consumers, but we are subsidizing their taxpayers by financing their government's debt at low interest rates.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties. It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports. Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods. Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses. And surpluses they did create. Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world. And what did this get them? Decades of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese. They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by the CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa. And, with well over a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse. American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse. Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

This One Simple Trick Will Send a Lot of Municipalities Into Bankruptcy

The "trick":

Democrats in the state House have proposed issuing $107 billion in bonds to backfill the state’s pension funds, which are short $129 billion. Annual state pension payments are projected to increase to $20 billion in 2045 from $8.5 billion—not including interest on $17 billion in debt the state previously issued to pay for pensions.

At the request of state retirees, a University of Illinois math professor performed a crack analysis showing how the state could use interest-rate arbitrage to shave its pension costs. Under the professor’s math, the state could sell 27-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds and invest the proceeds into its pension funds. This would supposedly stabilize the state’s pension payments at $8.5 billion annually, save taxpayers $103 billion over three decades and increase the state retirement system’s funding level to 90% from 40%. Can the mathemagician make House Speaker Michael Madigan disappear too?

So what exactly does this mean? What is the trick?  Essentially, the trick is... investing using margin.  The professor's math was based on borrowing at 5% and then investing at 7.5% returns (the returns the pension funds have gotten over the last several years' bull market).    Ignore the fact that this rickety scheme probably will not be able to borrow at 5%, but likely at a higher rate.  Even at 5%, the problem is that if returns fall below the interest being paid on the bonds, the state and the pension funds are in worse shape than they were before.  If you saw a friend who was in the hole after a night of losing gambling who was trying to borrow more money from the house to try to make it all back, you would stop him, right?

Given the risk of falling short of covering the margin interest, one also has to worry about the portfolio asset allocation incentives here.  You certainly can't borrow at 5% or more and expect to make any money investing long-term in almost any sort of reliable bonds.  This is going to push the pension managers into riskier all-equity portfolios and even beyond into trying even riskier investments that have almost never worked out well for government pension funds.

I write all this because apparently this insanity is coming to Phoenix. ugh.

Update on the last point:  From today's WSJ:

A decade of low bond yields pushed some of the most stability-minded investors to dabble in risky investments that depended on markets being orderly. Now, those bets are looking problematic.

In the past, pension funds, endowments and family offices pursued relatively safe investments. After interest rates collapsed on the heels of the financial crisis, they ran into challenges paying pensioners and filling university budgets, and added riskier bets on hedge funds and venture capital in the hopes of winning better returns.

More recently, some of these investors also made big, unpublicized wagers seeking to benefit from what had been an unusually long period of low volatility, according to pension-fund consultants and others who deal with these institutions. The strategies, often involving the writing of complicated options contracts, were for years a source of easy money. Markets hadn’t been so calm since the 1950s.

Among those making such bets were Harvard University’s endowment, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii and the Illinois State Universities Retirement System.

Yet volatility has now returned to markets, with a vengeance. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 2,400 points in a week, intraday market swings also surged. The Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at its highest level last week since August 2015, recording its biggest one-day jump ever on Feb. 5 as it surged to 37.32 from 17.31 the prior day.

The $16.9 billion Hawaii fund in 2016 began earning money selling “put” options—essentially a bet that markets would stay calm or rise. When markets fall, Hawaii is on the hook to pay out.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently Democrats Applied Blue-State Model To Their Own Finances

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

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

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

Overhyped Things That Don't Disappoint: Hamilton

We went to visit family in Chicago and in the process saw Hamilton there.  While expensive, it was a lot cheaper than New York and having listened to the Broadway cast album many times, I think the cast in Chicago was very competitive with Broadway.  And it was fabulous.  Really.  I know there is a tendency if one spends a lot of money on an event to convince oneself it was worth the money, but it really was in this case.

In most musicals I walk out singing a particular song.  Out of Hamilton, I find myself singing about 8 songs.   I had one pre-show decision in which I am not sure if I did the right thing -- I had a choice of listening to the soundtrack in advance or seeing the musical fresh on the stage.  I chose the former, mainly because in several songs the lyrics are so clever and come so fast and furious that it take a number of listenings to really appreciate them.  But I probably missed something by not seeing it fresh and new on the stage.

I will say that this has got to be the most unlikely musical ever.  I can just see the pitch -- I want to do a musical in rap featuring Hamilton and Jefferson debating about Federal assumption of state debt.    Seriously, it sounds more like a lead in to a Leonard Pinth-Garnell sketch on Really Bad Musical Theater on SNL.  But it works.

Stop Calling Crony Corporatism "Public Private Partnerships"

As someone whose company engages is what is usually called "public-private partnerships" or PPPs, one would expect me to be an enthusiastic supporter of all such efforts.  (As an aside, my company privatizes the operation, but not the ownership, of public parks and we are paid entirely by user fees and get not one single dollar of tax money.)

But I totally agree with Randal O'Toole's frustration here, talking about light rail in Denver:

Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.

Public-private partnerships work great if the private partner is funded out of the user fees collected for the project, such as a toll road or water system. The Antiplanner resents the way the transit industry has coopted the term, public-private partnership, because their kind of partnership works differently. Instead of being dependent on fares, the private partner gets a fat check from the agency each month–up to $3.5 million in this case–whether anyone rides the train or not. This means the private partner has little incentive to make sure the system is working. RTD has withheld a portion of the monthly payments until the problems are solved, but eventually the contractor will get all of the money.

The solution isn’t for the agencies to build the lines themselves. The solution is to completely avoid megaprojects that aren’t funded out of user fees. Without the discipline of user fees, everything that’s happening with the A line should have been expected.

A Post Election Day Note to Conservatives

Dear Conservatives:  As you wallow around in your election-day schadenfreude, I offer you this note of caution:  Except perhaps on immigration and a few miscellaneous issues like climate, Trump is not a Conservative.  He has no apparent respect for the Constitution, or free speech, or any number of individual freedoms.  He is a serial abuser of eminent domain and has lived off of crony rents for decades.  We often compare government unfavorably to private individuals when it comes to budgeting, observing that most of us can only spend as much as we bring in, unlike a profligate Federal government -- but Trump can't control spending in his own private sphere and has run up huge amounts of debt he has had to disavow in various quests for self-aggrandizement.  Do you really think he won't do the same thing with public funds?

I said this morning I would give up political prognostication, but I am fairly sure in less than 6 months we are going to see prominent Conservatives coming out publicly with buyer's remorse.

Leveraging Up The World in Good Times -- The Madness of Modern Central Banking

From the WSJ:

The European Central Bank’s corporate-bond-buying program has stirred so much action in credit markets that some investment banks and companies are creating new debt especially for the central bank to buy.

In two instances, the ECB has bought bonds directly from European companies through so-called private placements, in which debt is sold to a tight circle of buyers without the formality of a wider auction.

It is a startling example of how banks and companies are quickly adapting to the extremes of monetary policy in what is an already unconventional age. In the past decade, wide-scale purchases of government bonds—a bid to lower the cost of borrowing in the economy and persuade investors to take more risk—have become commonplace. Central banks more recently have moved to negative interest rates, flipping on their head the ancient customs of money lending. Now, they are all but inviting private actors to concoct specific things for them to buy so they can continue pumping money into the financial system.

The ECB doesn’t directly instruct companies to create specific bonds. But it makes plain that it is an eager purchaser, and it lays out the specifics of its wish list. And the ECB isn’t alone: The Bank of Japan said late last year it would buy exchange-traded funds comprising shares of companies that spend a growing amount on “physical and human capital,” essentially steering fund managers to make such ETFs available to buy.

Note that none of the criteria for the debt purchases is anything like, "the company has sensible plans for investing the money."  It is merely buying debt for debt's sake.  In the US, private companies are using most of their debt issues to buy back stock, a nearly pointless exercise that channels money from central banks to propping up equity valuations.  I wouldn't be surprised if European companies do the same.

Folks, it may not feel like it, but we are at the top of the economic cycle.   We have negative interest rates and central banks buying up every available debt issues in relatively good times, when these were formerly considered tools for the deepest point in a recession.  I am not a big believer in government stimulus, but these folks are.  What are they counting on in the bad times, when nothing will be left in the tank?

But now, we see central banks going one step further, encouraging private companies to lever up at the top of the business cycle.   Historically, this has been a formula for disaster.  The oil industry has been a preview of this.  Take ExxonMobil (XOM).  XOM, given its size, has never been very good at developing certain sorts of plays (e.g. the shale boom).  What it has done historically is use its size and balance sheet to swoop in during inevitable periods of low oil prices and producer losses to buy up developed fields at good prices.  But this time around, XOM has only had limited ability to do this, because it spent the boom years levering up its balance sheet and buying back stock.  Other large oil companies are in even more dire straights, facing real cash flow crises because, again, they levered up to repurchase stock when they should have been cleaning up their balance sheet.

Huh? Punishment for Taking Out A Loan You Couldn't Afford is... You Don't Have To Pay the Loan Back?

I really was not going to blog this week but this article exceeded by fury threshold, which is pretty hard to do nowadays.

The report, shared with MarketWatch, states that some of Puerto Rico’s debt may have been issued illegally, allowing the government to potentially declare the bonds invalid and courts to then decide that creditors’ claims are unenforceable. The scope of the audit report, issued by the island’s Public Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission, covers the two most recent full-faith-and-credit debt issues of the commonwealth: Puerto Rico’s 2014 $3.5 billion general-obligation bond offering and a $900 million issuance in 2015 of Tax Refund Anticipation Notes to a syndicate of banks led by J.P Morgan

So government officials break the law by taking out a loan they shouldn't have taken out, and the punishment is that they get to keep the money and not pay it back?  This is absolutely absurd.  That means that completely innocent third parties are essentially being fined $4.4 billion for the malfeasance of Puerto Rico's government officials.  Were the creditors truly innocent?  Well, the same report goes on to further criticize the government officials for not telling their creditors that what the government was asking for was illegal

Puerto Rico did not inform bondholders that its constitution forbids it from using debt to finance deficits. That, the commission’s report says suggests “substantive” noncompliance with the letter of the constitution

So in fact, incredibly, the creditors' very innocence is used as part of the proof that the debt was illegal, and thus that creditors should be expropriated.

I thought that this couldn't possibly be the law, except that the Supreme Court has already upheld the same outcome in other cases:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the Litchfield v. Ballou case and, more recently, in litigation related to Detroit’s bankruptcy that borrowing above a debt ceiling may allow the issuer to declare debt invalid and, therefore, unpayable. Detroit went to court to invalidate $1.45 billion in certificates of participation, debt issued by two shell companies called “service corporations.” The parties settled before the case went to trial, but, while refusing two initial proposed settlements, the judge stated that Detroit’s argument had “substantial merit” and that the suit would have had a “reasonable likelihood of success.”

This is they type of thing that occurs in banana republics.  No honest nation with a strong rule of law operates this way.  And what is to prevent other distressed government bodies with limited ethics (e.g. the State of Illinois) from carefully borrowing money in a way that is subtly illegal and then repudiate it a few years later?

The Trade Deficit is Not A Debt

If you search Coyoteblog for the title of this post, you will see a number of others with the same title.  It seems to be a theme we keep having to come back to.  Here is one example of where I tried to explain why the trade deficit is not a debt.

Take the Chinese for example.  One thing that people often miss is that the Chinese buy a LOT more American stuff than the trade numbers portray.  The numbers in the balance of trade accounts include only products the Chinese buy from the US and then take back to China to consume there.  But the Chinese like to buy American stuff and consume it here, in the US.  They buy land and materials to build factories and trade offices.  They buy houses in California.  They buy our government bonds.  None of this stuff shows up in the trade numbers.  Is it somehow worse that the Chinese wish to consume their American products in America?  No.  How could it be.  In fact, its a compliment.  They know that our country is, long-term, a safer and more reliable place to own and hold on to things of value than their own country.

Dollars paid to a Chinese manufacturer have to get recycled to the US -- they don't just build up in a pile.   If I am a construction contractor in LA and build that manufacturer a new office or a local home and get paid with those recycled dollars, I am effectively exporting to the Chinese, only the goods and services I sold them never leave the country and so don't show up in the trade numbers.  So what does this mean?   In my mind, it means that the trade deficit number is a stupid metric to obsess over.

Another way I think about it is to observe that the US is winning the battle of stuff.   Money as money itself does not improve my well-being -- only the stuff (goods and services) I can purchase with it can do so.   So i t turns out that other countries ship far more stuff to the US than we ship out. And then these folks in other countries take the money they earn from this trade and buy more stuff in the US and keep keep that stuff here!

I am reminded of all this because several other folks are taking a swing at trying to make this point to the economically illiterate.   Don Boudreaux does so here, and Dan Ikensan here.  And here is Walter Williams as well.

Cargo Cult Economics And Why We Should Stop Fetishizing Home Ownership

I have always thought that government policy to encourage home ownership was  counter-productive, even beyond its role in creating bubbles.  My sense is that those who advocate for such programs are engaging in what I call cargo cult economics.

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

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class [without any consideration of which direction the arrow of causation ran].  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.

I tend to be a lone voice in the wilderness on this (even those who oppose government programs for libertarian reasons often tend to fetishize home ownership).  But Ike Brannon at Alt-M seems to agree:

The pro-home-building folks aver that homeownership fosters civic involvement and helps people become more tied to their community, which encourages other behavior beneficial for the economy.  And for a good proportion of homeowners the majority of their net wealth is in their home, so it can be an important source of savings.

But another way to look at it is that correlation is not causation:  The reason that homeowners are more civic-minded and involved in the community is because such people are much more likely to have the wherewithal to save enough to make a downpayment on a house.  Ed Glaeser, the renowned housing economist from Harvard, puts little stock in the notion that homeownership has significant positive societal externalities.

What's more, there's some evidence that high homeownership rates have downsides as well.  In the last four decades the predilection for moving has slowed significantly:  only half as many people moved across state or county lines in any year this decade as was the case in the 1950s, for instance.  This is problematic because it means that our economy is worse at matching up workers with where the available jobs are.  The lingering unemployment in many rust-belt states would be less if some of their unemployed could be persuaded to move to another community where there are jobs.  There has been a decades-long move of people from the midwest to the Sunbelt, of course, but the data suggest there's ample room for more.  This hasn't happened in part because people are tied down by the homes that they own and are reluctant to sell while they are underwater.  That people are unable to ignore sunk costs isn't economically rational, of course, but it nevertheless governs how many people consider whether to move.

China as a Test of Keynes vs. Hayek

Let's start by saying that I have an imperfect layman's view of Keynes and Hayek.  This is my understanding and over-simplification of how these camps deal with economic downturns.

  • Keynes:  Economic downturns result from some sort of failure of aggregate demand.  There are positive feedbacks in the system such that a small downturn can lead to a larger downturn if left unchecked (but on the flip side mean that a small stimulus can have a disproportionately large effect on demand).  The proper government response to a downturn is to create demand through government deficit spending.   Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession likely is the result of the government not being aggressive enough in its spending.
  • Hayek:  Economic downturns result from mis-allocation of savings and investment capital, often due to government policy by not necessarily so (one can argue the housing bubble was driven by government policy, but the first Internet bubble likely was not).  The proper government response to a recession is to stop any distorting government policy that drove it and let the economy sort itself out by restructuring.  Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession is likely due to interventions that slow this necessary restructuring (e.g. bailouts, government-directed investment programs).

I will say that if my Hayek description is not correct for the Austrians, it is correct for me -- this is what I believe happens.

That said, I have long thought the Japanese lost decade(s) were pretty much final proof of the Hayek vs. Keynes explanation, and I am sort of amazed people still argue about it.  I remember in the 80's people in the US admired the Japanese MITI system of industrial management that carefully directed investment into government-preferred industries and, by the way, stomped on the Japanese consumer (including laws that kept both the retail and agricultural sectors backwards) in favor of promoting the export market.

In the 20+ years since Japan slid into a downturn, they have been the poster child for Keynesian stimulation.  They have deficit spent like crazy and have driven up -- by a longshot -- the largest government debt as a percent of GDP of any of the industrialized nations.  Yet still they flounder -- I would argue precisely because they had an Austrian recession, based on years and years of government-enforced mal-investment, but have refused the Austrian solution.  Watching it evolve over the years, I have thought it impossible to miss the point, but it appears that Krugman-Keynesians can always argue, not matter how much government debt was run up, that the problem was that they just didn't spend enough.

Well, in my view we have another such test coming, perhaps even more stark -- in China.  China, perhaps more than Japan, has filled their economy with investment distortions -- the huge empty cities that get shown on the Internet seem to be one example.

China empty city

And over the past year or two, China has been deficit spending and stimulating like hell -- both at the central government level as well as with policies that have encouraged the accumulation of debt both locally and in industry.

This is why I think the crash is coming in China, and the longer they manage to delay it by artificial means, the worse and longer the crash will be.  There is probably a bet that could be had here, but I am not sure how it would be structured.

And This is Different from the US, How?

I am out of the country (currently in Thailand for a wedding).  I read this in the local Asian WSJ, an article about money and patronage in the Malaysian political process.  And while I suppose I was supposed to think "wow, Malaysia is sure screwed up" -- all I was really left with at the end of this article was "how is this any different from the US?" How does 1MDB differ from, say, various green energy funds at the Federal level or community development funds at the local level?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was fighting for his political life this summer after revelations that almost $700 million from an undisclosed source had entered his personal bank accounts.

Under pressure within his party to resign, he called together a group of senior leaders in July to remind them everyone had benefited from the money.

The funds, Mr. Najib said, weren’t used for his personal enrichment. Instead, they were channeled to politicians or into spending on projects aimed at helping the ruling party win elections in 2013, he said, according to a cabinet minister who was present.

“I took the money to spend for us,” the minister quoted Mr. Najib as saying.

It still isn’t clear where the $700 million came from or where it went. But a six-month Wall Street Journal examination revealed that public entities spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive patronage machine to help ensure Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization stayed in power. The payments, while legal, represented a new milestone in Malaysia’s freewheeling electoral system, according to ruling-party officials....

The effort relied heavily on the state investment fund Mr. Najib controlled, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., according to minutes from 1MDB board meetings seen by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with people who worked there.

The prime minister, who is chairman of 1MDB’s board of advisers, promised repeatedly that the fund would boost Malaysia’s economy by attracting foreign capital. It rolled up more than $11 billion in debt without luring major investments.

Yet Mr. Najib used the fund to funnel at least $140 million to charity projects such as schools and low-cost housing in ways that boosted UMNO’s election chances, the Journal investigation found.

The minutes portray a fund that repeatedly prioritized political spending, even when 1MDB’s cash flow was insufficient to cover its debt payments.

This illustrates one (of many) reasons why those lobbying to reduce campaign spending are on the wrong track.  Because no matter how much one limits the direct spending in elections, no country, including the US, ever limits politicians from these sorts of patronage projects, which are essentially vote-buying schemes with my tax money.

The reason there is so much money in politics is because supporters of large government have raised the stakes for elections.  Want to see money leave politics? -- eliminate the government's ability to sacrifice one group to another while subsidizing a third, and no one will spend spend a billion dollars to get his guy elected to public office.

By the way, in this current Presidential election we are seeing a vivid demonstration of another reason campaign spending limits are misguided.  With strict spending limits, the advantage goes to the incumbent.  The only people who can break through this advantage are people who are either a) already famous for some other reason or b) people who resort to the craziest populist rhetoric.  Both of which describe Donald Trump to a T (update:  Trump has spent virtually no money in this election, so he should be the dream candidate of clean elections folks, right?)

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

Some More Thoughts on Greece -- When European Charity Runs Out, All That is Left is Inflation

People keep talking about reducing Greek debt to a sustainable level, but part of the problem is that there is not such level.  Even at zero.  The problem is that Greece is running a government deficit even before any debt service, so if creditors were to waive all of its debt, it would still need to be borrowing new money tomorrow.  Debt forgiveness is not enough -- what the Greeks need is for Europe to write off all its debt, and then (having lost all their money on the old debt) start lending new money immediately.  Note also that any bailout agreement reached this month will just put everyone back in the exact same place a few months from now.

This situation cannot be expected to change any time soon, for a variety of reasons from demographics (Greece has the oldest population in Europe, and a relatively rich pension system) to ideology (the current pseudo-Marxist government will never implement the reforms needed to turn the economy around, even if they promise to do so under duress).

With structural solutions unlikely, Greece has only the options of charity and inflation. Greece still seems to be hoping for charity, which they make harder by spewing derision at the same folks whom they are begging for alms.  Europe, certainly Germany, is in no mood to be charitable any longer, but may still do so depending on their calculation about which action -- bailout or exit -- has the worse long-term consequences for keeping Portugal, Spain, and Italy both in the Euro and continuing to pay their debts.

Lacking charity, the only thing left is inflation.  Some folks think I am advocating that option.  I am not.  The best possible hope for Greece is to slash its economic regulation, privatize business, and cut back on the public sector -- but that is not going to happen with the current government.  Or maybe any government.

I say inflation is the only option because that is what balances the budget and "solves" debt problems when politicians are unable or unwilling to make any hard choices.  It is sort of the default.  If they can't balance the budget or figure out how to pay off debt, then inflation does it for them by reducing the value of pensions and outstanding debts**.  This is what will happen with a Grexit -- a massive bout of devaluation and inflation what will greatly reduce the value of any IOU, whether it be a pension or a bank deposit.

Eventually, the one good thing that comes from inflation and devaluation is that the country becomes really cheap to outsiders.  Tourists will flock in and olive oil will sell well internationally as the new drachma loses its value, creating value for people holding stronger currencies and potentially forming the basis for some sort of economic revival.  My wife and I decided a few months back to postpone the Greek vacation we wanted this year -- too much turmoil is still possible -- and wait for it to be a bargain in 2016 or 2017.

 

**Postscript:  This is exactly why the Euro is both immensely seductive and a dangerous trap for countries like Greece.  Seductive, because it could pursue any sort of destructive banana republic fiscal policy it wished and still have a strong currency.  A trap because it can no longer print money and inflate away its debt problems.

If We Are Using Every Stimulus Tool in the Book at the Top of the Cycle, What Are We Going To Do In The Next Downturn?

From the Telegraph

The world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crises, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.

The so-called central bank of central banks launched a scatching critique of global monetary policy in its annual report. The BIS claimed that central banks have backed themselves into a corner after repeatedly cutting interest rates to shore up their economies.

These low interest rates have in turn fuelled economic booms, encouraging excessive risk taking. Booms have then turned to busts, which policymakers have responded to with even lower rates....

“Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, [lower rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustment. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.

"In short, low rates beget lower rates."

The BIS warned that interest rates have now been so low for so long that central banks are unequipped to fight the next crises.

Dear Paul Krugman: Please Explain Labor Demand Elasticity in Puerto Rico

Paul Krugman and a surprisingly large portion of Leftish economists have staked out a position that labor does not act like any other commodity, such that higher minimum wages have no effect on demand.  I have had people on the Left tell me that this absurd, common-sense-offending position is actually "settled".  So explain Puerto Rico:

Another problem is that just 40 percent of the population [of Puerto Rico] has a job—or is even looking for one. That figure has plummeted in recent years. In the United States as a whole, it is 62.9 percent....

The report cites one surprising problem: the federal minimum wage, which is at the same level in Puerto Rico as in the rest of the country, even though the economy there is so much weaker. There are probably some people who would like to work, but because of the sickly economy, businesses can't afford to pay them the minimum wage.

Someone working full time for the minimum wage earns $15,080 a year, which isn't that much less than the median income in Puerto Rico of $19,624.

The report also cites regulations and restrictions that make it difficult to set up new businesses and hire workers, although it's difficult to know just how large an effect these rules might or might not have on the labor market.

By the way, the fact that the author thinks this is "surprising" just goes to show how far this anti-factual meme of a non-sloping labor demand curve has penetrated.

As pointed out in several places today, Puerto Rico has a surprising number of parallels to Greece.   It seems to have zero fiscal restraint, it has structural and regulatory issues in its economy that suppress growth, and has its currency pegged to that of a larger, much richer nation.  It is apparently facing a huge $70+ billion potential debt default.

Greece's Lesson for Gold Bugs

I have been predicting for years that the only solution for the Greece problem is for it to exit the Euro, go through a horrible economic crisis and deal with substantial devaluation, and then hopefully move on with a cheaper currency that makes its tourist industry look better and plugs the hole between taxing and spending with inflation.  It appears we are closer than ever to this actually happening.  The Greeks would likely be moving forward now, like Iceland, if they had taken their medicine years ago rather than try to kick the can.  Now it is just going to be worse.

I have been enamored off and on with the idea of a gold standard but Megan McArdle made some powerful points today about how the Greek situation teaches us that a gold standard doesn't necessarily impose discipline on governments.

It's easy to moralize Greece's feckless borrowing, weak tax collection and long history of default, and hey, go ahead; I won't stop you. But whatever the nation's moral failures, what we're witnessing now shows the dangers of trying to cure the problems of weak fiscal discipline with some sort of externally imposed currency regime. Greek creditors and Brussels were not the only people to joyously embrace the belief that the euro would finally force Greece to keep its financial house in order; you hear the same arguments right here at home from American gold bugs. During the ardent height of Ron Paul's popularity, I tried to explain why this doesn't work: "You don't get anything out of a gold standard that you didn't bring with you. If your government is a credible steward of the money supply, you don't need it; and if it isn't, it won't be able to stay on it long anyway."

This goes double for fiscal discipline. Moving to a fixed exchange rate protects bond-holders from one specific sort of risk: the possibility that inflation will erode the real value of your bonds. But that doesn't remove the risk. It just transforms it. Now that the government can't inflate away its debt, you instead face the risk that they are going to run out of money to pay their bills and suddenly default. That's exactly what happened to Argentina, and many other nations on various other currency regimes, from the gold standard to a currency peg. The ability to inflate the currency had gone away, but the currency regime didn't fix any of the underlying institutional problems that previous governments had solved with inflation. So bondholders protected themselves from inflation, and instead took a catastrophic haircut.

Postscript #1:  I had one issue with McArdle's piece when she writes

The only people this will be good for is people who long to vacation on the Greek Islands. If Grexit actually happens, book those plane tickets now, but hold off on the hotel. It will be cheaper in six months. Then try to enjoy it as you remember that those fabulous savings are someone else's whole life evaporating.

Hey, if Grexit occurs, you have no reason to feel guilty about taking advantage of the weak currency and low prices for a Greek vacation.  There is nothing the Greeks need more than for you to do exactly that.   It is the single best thing you could do for the Greek people.

Postscript#2:  Here is why exiting the Euro, devalutation, and inflation are the only way out for Greece at this point. Creditors allow countries to run long-term deficits and keep lending despite rising debt (see: Japan) because of a combination of a) the country can always just print the money they need; b) the country can raise taxes and take the money it needs or c) the country can keep spending flat and grow their way out from the debt.

None of these are available to Greece. They can't print money, at least without running up new debts (excess printing of Euros is automatically added to Greece's debt to the ECB).  They can't raise taxes because their citizens don't pay the taxes that already exist.  And they can't grow their way out because there is zero support for austerity or market-based reforms that would be necessary, and besides a huge portion of Greek deficit spending is for inherently unproductive activities.  At this point Greece's only option is charity, that the other countries of the EU will forgive debt or write them new debt, either to be nice or to avoid bad precedents with other PIGS countries.  But  the EU seems at the end of its charity rope, and besides given zero prospects of any sort of Greek recovery, even after a major write-off of debt the EU would be in the position of still having to send Greece new money for its new debts.