Posts tagged ‘fraud’

Tesla Predictions Secured

I had dinner last night with my old college roommate Brink Lindsey and he even sort of rolled his eyes about my recent Tesla obsession, so I really really will try to make this the last post for a while.  However, I have to count coup on a few accurate predictions I made last week here and here.

First, I said, in reference to how Musk can bail himself out of his "funding secured" tweet when it has become clear this is not the case:

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

Today Musk writes:

Recently, after the Saudi fund bought almost 5% of Tesla stock through the public markets, they reached out to ask for another meeting. That meeting took place on July 31st. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the fund expressed regret that I had not moved forward previously on a going private transaction with them, and he strongly expressed his support for funding a going private transaction for Tesla at this time. I understood from him that no other decision makers were needed and that they were eager to proceed....

I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving. This is why I referred to “funding secured” in the August 7th announcement.

Of course the Feds probably expect "funding secured" to mean a signed term sheet (which does not exist) accompanied by an 8-K (which STILL has not been issued).  I then said in my prediction:

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

And today we learn:

But was the funding really secured? Apparently not, because in the very next paragraph Musk writes that "following the August 7th announcement, I have continued to communicate with the Managing Director of the Saudi fund. He has expressed support for proceeding subject to financial and other due diligence and their internal review process for obtaining approvals. He has also asked for additional details on how the company would be taken private, including any required percentages and any regulatory requirements."

Hmmm.  So basically Musk had a chat with the Saudis that did not include any due diligence, any percentages, or anything about the structure of the transaction and nothing has been submitted formally to the Saudis for the required review and approval.  The Feds would never accept this BS from an unpopular CEO like, say, Jeff Skilling.  It remains to be seen whether they will really go after cultural icon Musk.

Finally, I predicted the odd and relatively unprecedented transaction that Musk likely envisioned:

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

There was no way that Musk could expect to raise $70-$80 billion ($420 times the float) or to run an already cash-starved business with that much debt.  The only way to imagine this is if the buyout was only of a small percentage of owners.  And sure enough, here is Musk this morning:

Therefore, reports that more than $70B would be needed to take Tesla private dramatically overstate the actual capital raise needed. The $420 buyout price would only be used for Tesla shareholders who do not remain with our company if it is private. My best estimate right now is that approximately two-thirds of shares owned by all current investors would roll over into a private Tesla.

I won't comment on whether this is possible because I don't know enough about security laws.  I have been told that the SEC would likely frown on a private company with no public disclosures that has thousands or even millions of individual shareholders, but again, I don't know.

I find it amazing that anyone would want to stay in on this basis, but like Musk, the Tesla fan-boys seem to care more about burning the shorts than the quality of their own long investment in Tesla.  How can moving your small (percentage-wise) investment in Tesla from being exchange-traded to being locked up in a private company possibly be an improvement?  Today your investment has total liquidity (you can sell any time), it has massive 3rd party scrutiny and accountability, and it has real-time price discovery.  You would lose all of that in a private company.  You can only sell when Musk lets you sell and at the price he chooses to give you based on whatever company information he chooses to release.  Choosing the private option as a minority shareholder is like saying that you would rather hold non-refundable airline tickets than fully refundable ones.

Postscript:  I am new to the world of short-selling fights, as I am not really an active investor and just got sucked into watching Tesla because I found it interesting.  But wow, the tribalism of politics sure has leaked into the investment world!  In tribal politics, we see people more motivated by hatred of the other tribe than by making progress on their own tribe's goals.  This same kind of "reasoning" seems to dominate a lot of the Tesla long-short battle.

Update:  Here is a new prediction.  For a while Elon Musk has claimed he will not have to raise capital this year.  Everyone basically looks at his numbers and thinks he is nuts.  What's more, given his $50 billion equity valuation currently, he SHOULD be raising capital now while his stock is high and thus his cost of capital is low.

But one way to look at this is if he raises $20 billion in equity to buy out the 1/3 he thinks will want the cash rather than the new stock, he could easily just make that $22 billion so the company has an extra $2 billion in operating cash and thus raise capital this year without it looking like he violated his promise not to raise capital.

 

My Guesses About $TSLA, and Why @TSLA Shareholder May Be Presented with a Bad Deal

@Elonmusk is facing real blowback for his management buyout by tweet the other day, in particular for two words:  "funding secured."  Many, including myself, doubt he really had tens of billions of dollars of funding secured at the time, particularly since all bankers and likely sources of funding as well as most large Tesla shareholders had never heard of any such transaction when contacted by the media.  The SEC is now looking into this and other Musk corporate communication practices.  If he lied in the tweet, perhaps to get revenge on the short-sellers he hates with an irrational passion, he could be in deep, deep legal poop, up to and including jail.

Let's play a game.  Let's assume he did NOT have funding secured at the time he tweeted this, and now is running scared.  What can he do?  One ace he has is that the board is in his pocket and (I hate to be so cynical about this) will likely lie their asses off to cover Musk.  We already saw the dubious letter the other day, from "members of the board" rather than officially from the board, attempting to provide cover for Musk's tweets.  This is not just a crony thing -- it is entirely rational for the company to defend Musk.  He is, in my opinion, a terrible executive but he is the avatar that drives the fan boys and the stock price.  The day that Musk leaves is the day that the company can really get its operational house in order but it is also the day the stock trades under $75.

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

The problem with this is it would be really a deal being crafted for tens of billions of dollars on a very short timeframe and with limited negotiating leverage (X will know that Musk NEEDS this deal).  As a result, the deal is not likely to be a very good one.  X will demand all sorts of extraordinary provisions, perhaps, for example, a first lien on all Tesla IP and a high breakup fee.  I picture this more like the negotiation for bankruptcy financing, and in fact the IP lien was part of the financing deal Theranos made when it was going down the drain.  But put yourself in Musk's shoes -- jail or bad deal?

And likely his conscience would be clear because this deal would be killed quickly by shareholders.  That would be fine, because the purpose of the exercise would be to keep Musk out of jail, not to actually buy the company.  Tesla shareholders will still get hosed, probably having to pay some kind of break-up fee which any sane investor X would insert as the price for participating in this farce.  And we will go back to the starting point of all this, which is Tesla being public and focusing on operational improvement in what may be the most important operational quarter in its history.

Disclosure:  I have in the past been short Tesla but have no position in it now (I did short when trading reopened the other day after Musk's announcement but covered this afternoon).  I am not in any way, shape, or form giving any financial advice you should spend actual money backing.

Scam Alert - Fake Utility Company Call

Someone called one of our locations claiming to be the local utility company (they had the correct name, phone number and service address) said our power was going to be shut off that day for non-payment unless they were paid immediately over the phone.  Fortunately our managers hung up and called the utility main number and found out we were fully paid up and that this was a scam.

Here is the simplest protection for you in your personal and professional life: never give anything -- any information, any passwords, any numbers, any money -- to someone who calls you. If they claim to be the FBI or the IRS or the power company or whoever, you should hang up and if you are worried it might be real, look up their number and call them back. Sometimes a credit card company will call you with legitimate fraud alerts but I still never talk to them when they call me. I hang up and then call the number on the back of the card.

Book Review: Bad Blood

Over the weekend I read John Carreyrou's book Bad Blood, which is a narrative of the fraud at blood analyzer startup Theranos that Mr. Carrreyrou broke in the WSJ.  To save me summarizing the story, here is the Amazon description:

 In Bad Blood, the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou takes us through the step-by-step history of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup that became almost mythical, in no small part due to its young, charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes. In fact, Theranos was mythical for a different reason, because the technological promise it was founded upon—that vital health information could be gleaned from a small drop of blood using handheld devices—was a lie. Carreyrou tracks the experiences of former employees to craft the fascinating story of a company run under a strict code of secrecy, a place where leadership was constantly throwing up smoke screens and making promises that it could not keep. Meanwhile, investors kept pouring in money, turning Elizabeth Holmes into a temporary billionaire. As companies like Walgreens and Safeway strike deals with Theranos, and as even the army tries to get in on the Theranos promise (there’s a brief cameo by James “Mad Dog” Mattis), the plot thickens and the proverbial noose grows tighter. Although I knew how the story ended, I found myself reading this book compulsively

In short, I really enjoyed the book and found it hard to put down.  Carreyrou has made it an interesting narrative, that gets bogged down only slightly by the fact that there are just so many people's names that pass through the narrative, an unavoidable problem given the huge employee turnover at Theranos.  There is a meta-narrative that repeats over and over:  new employee shows up full of passion, new employee starts seeing bad stuff, new employee reports bad stuff to visionary founder, visionary founder fires employee on the spot, employee gets harassed for months and years by Theranos lawyers.

I will warn you that a book like this was always going to be catnip for me.  I love business craziness and disaster stories (e.g. Barbarians at the Gate and the Devil's Candy).  Possibly this is just schadenfreude, or possibly it was from my personal brush with another one (I worked for Jeff Skilling briefly at McKinsey & Co. on the Enron study).  But I think many will enjoy it, if for no other reasons that while Skilling at Enron or Johnson at RJR were not well known to the average person, Elizabeth Holmes was a household name, almost a pop culture figure.  She was  on the cover of every magazine and on every talk show.  She was both admired and envied, both as a young female billionaire and as someone who had a real vision to help humanity.  How did she go so far off the rails?

I followed this story originally in the pages of Carreyrou's WSJ articles, and as it unfolded I was asking, like most everyone, could this be true?  As he continued to report, it became steadily clearer that there was real fraud involved.  So I wanted to read the book and see where the fraud started.  I assumed that the central mystery of the book would be when that fateful step over the line occured.

But it turned out that Holmes was going over the line almost from the very beginning.  The real mystery became:  when and how is someone finally going to blow the whistle on this?  And also, given that I knew the whole thing doesn't start to unravel until 2016 or so, how is it going to take that long for this to come out?  Part of the answer is the insane security and non-disclosures put in place in addition to borderline-unethical legal pressure brought on potential whistleblowers by lawyers like David Boies.  But there are other causes as well, including:

  • People wanted her vision to be true.  My wife is a borderline diabetic who has to give a lot of blood -- she was very passionate about this technology.
  • Companies like Walgreens operated from a fear of missing out.  They had a lot of clues there were problems, but if they didn't pursue it, what if it really did work and their competitors did the deal instead?
  • The oddest cause of all (and one Carreyrou does not really dwell on) was that rich older men fell for Holmes hard.  Hardened, seasoned business people time and again fell under her sway and followed her almost like a cult leader and helped protect her from accountability.  The list is like a who's who:  Larry Ellison, Steven Burd (CEO of Safeway), Rupert Murdoch, David Bois, James Mattis, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger -- the list goes on and on.  She had the highest power board I have ever seen at any company ever and she completely dominated them.  On the other hand, I don't think there is a single young female in the story who fell for her BS for more than a few months.

One other note that I think is worth mentioning:  Rupert Murdoch gets a lot of cr*p for being the poster child of destructive corporatization of media.  In this story, he was the single largest investor in Theranos with $125 million of his money in the company.  He was one of the older men who fell totally for Holmes.  But when Holmes came to him several times asking him to shut down an out of control reporter at Murdoch-owned WSJ, Murdoch said no, despite the fact that this reporting would eventually make Murdoch's $125 million investment worthless.

Mueller Is Revenge on Republicans for Bill Clinton Impeachment

When special prosecutor Ken Starr finally presented charges to Congress against Bill Clinton, it was for lying under oath about his sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky.  Did someone really originally authorize Starr to look into this?  No, his original mission was to look into any criminal wrongdoing associated with the Clintons and the Whitewater Development Corporation from Clinton's days in Arkansas.  But he got nowhere with that, so like a typical prosecutor he looked for something else illegal so he could still score a "kill".

The other day, special prosecutor Mueller staged a very high-profile raid on President Trump's long-time attorney.  His original brief was to look into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russians to win the election.  Readers will know I have always been skeptical of this.  I believe while the Russians were spinning propaganda about the election, its effects were incidental and likely not coordinated with Trump, though he may have benefited.  I think one could craft at least as strong a story about Clinton connections with the Russians as you can about Trump connections.

Anyway, the raid the other day made it clear that Mueller is getting no farther with Russia than Starr got with Whitewater.  He raided Trump's attorney's office (a pretty aggressive move) to get evidence of ... lying about details related to Trump's Stormy Daniels affair and perhaps for details about the famous Trump Access Hollywood tape.  While I am skeptical that there is much in the Russia story, I am more than willing to believe that there may be lying and fraud related to Trump's business and sex lives.

If history does not repeat itself, it certainly echoes.

Postscript:  When Republicans see the far Left slate of candidates the Dem's are likely to field for President in 2020, they are going to long for Bill Clinton.  Heck, I could list a lot of states that would happily run Clinton as their Republican candidate for Congress in 2018.

Our Double Standard on White Collar Fraud

Nobody really liked Jeff Skilling of Enron and he sits in jail for 20 years.  We think Elizabeth Holmes is attractive and cool so that despite the fact that she committed serial fraud in lying about her company's technology and financials (far more baldly and egregiously than Skilling) and actually put people at risk through faulty medical testing, she got only a slap on the wrist.

And then there is Elon Musk.

I am not sure how I got in the role of fact-checking Elon Musk, but given the company's stated results to date and announced operating plans and strategies, there is simply no way for the Tesla to be profitable and cash flow positive in Q3, barring some deus ex machina like a massive energy credit or California subsidy windfall.  It's possible I could go in there and shut down R&D and model 3 production and milk the Model S and X for cash and might make this be true, but that is certainly not their announced business plan.  On their current path Tesla has to continue to burn cash through the rest of this year.  I am not even sure that if you stated their gross margin the same way that other automakers state their numbers that even it would be positive right now -- there is an argument to be made they are still losing money at the margin on every car they produce**.  I would add that in this point of their ramp, if you want to see Tesla the huge success that is baked into its current stock valuation, you don't want Tesla to be cash flow positive in the third quarter, you want it continuing to invest.   Amazon rules the world because it deferred profitability for years in favor of growth.

Tesla pretty much never ever lives up to Musk's promises, at least for the dates he promises them.  That is probably OK with things like deliveries of new products -- people understand he is pushing technology and new products can be delayed and they forgive entrepreneurs for being -- shall we say -- overly enthusiastic about such things.   But on financial stuff like this his statements are bordering on fraud.  But he'll never get called on it, because we like him in a way we didn't like Skilling.

I will add that if Musk wants to get snippy about the media's guesses about his company's prospects, and thinks we are all getting it wrong, he could sure be a lot more transparent about Tesla's financials and plans.  Go watch an Exxon-Mobil analyst presentation and compare it to Musk's quarterly arm-waving.  Also, one final memo to Musk:  responding to your critics on Twitter emulating Trump's style is not recommended.  Though it might be interesting to compare the irrational populist wave behind Trump with the populist wave behind Tesla.  Though the two Venn diagrams of supporters probably do not overlap much, the whole relationship feels similar to me.

Disclosure:  I have been short TSLA in the past but right now have no position.  To be honest, I am going to let Musk urge his fanboys to pump the stock a bit further before I short again.  The fanboy effect makes TSLA a dangerous short, as TSLA stock holders will defy reality for far longer than will holders of say GE or XOM.

 

** gross margin at TSLA is interesting because TSLA has no dealer network, something I like them for.  GM discounts its cars to their dealers (10% or so?) but in turn they offload a bunch of selling and support costs to the dealers.  In their gross margin, TSLA banks in their gross margin the extra 10% from not having to discount their cars but in turn does not charge gross margin for a lot of the extra sales and support costs they have to take on -- instead they drop these costs into SG&A overhead. The situation with gross margin is even more complicated because Tesla not only has to build out and operate its own warranty service, sales, and delivery network to replace traditional dealers, it is also building out its own fueling service to replace gas stations.  Here is one guy who thinks Tesla gross margin is really negative.  I have zero idea who he is but for the last year his predictions about Tesla have been a lot more reliable than Musk's statements.

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.

So the IRS Threat Phishing Scam Seems to be Back

I have gotten three calls in three days with an automated voice message telling me that, in essence, the IRS is seriously pissed at me and I need to call a certain number in 24 hours to resolve it.

The message in some ways is reminiscent of the old Nigerian email scams in that the English sounds like a really bad translation of another language.  I wish I had a recording.  Some of it uses stilted English, as if it is trying to emulate bureaucratese.  But some of the message hilariously uses slang in ways that the IRS would never do in its official communication, most memorable of which was the admonishment that if I did not respond immediately, the IRS would "send the local cops to arrest me."  The IRS would never use the word "cops".  I can't remember an agency every using the word "police" even.  Government officials almost always use the term "law enforcement".

Suffice it to say, the IRS does not generally make calls like this.  If you think it might be legit, ignore whatever number that was left in the message and call the IRS customer support line on their web site.  This latter is always good advice for almost any collection or customer support call.  I get a number of calls and emails, for example, from credit card companies that say they suspect fraud and want to review some transactions.  I always ignore whatever number they leave me, or if they reach me with a live person tell them I will call back, and then I call the number printed on the back on the credit card.

Some Good News This Morning -- The Prosecution of David Bell

Today I received a victim notification from the DOJ that the Feds were prosecuting David William Bell for fraud.  I encountered his fraud attempts here, where I described how a fake bill from UST or US Telecom was actually a scam contract in disguise.  Apparently Ken White has been on this guys case for years and described the two different investigations against him here (one for the scam I was presented with, and a second one involving payroll companies).  I was actually a victim of neither, because I saw the trap before I fell into it, but I guess since I wrote a letter to the Feds informing them of the fraud they added me to the database (actually they informed me of the wrong fraud -- the payroll company fraud -- rather than the one I was tangentially involved with, but that's the government).  Ken White always says that the wheels of justice in such cases turn slowly but they do turn, and once the Feds get you in their sights, they can be relentless (for good and for bad).

Update:  Not sure why I am getting this now when Ken White reported that David Bell pled guilty in both cases in August.

UNC Avoids Athletic Sanctions By Arguing their African-American Studies Dept. Had Staggeringly Low Academic Standards

Well, it appears the common Conservative critique that many university race and gender programs have really low standards has a new supporter:  The University of North Carolina.  UNC successfully argued that it was not giving its athletes special treatment in the African-American studies department -- they had low standards for all students in that department.

A years-long probe into widespread academic fraud in North Carolina’s athletic program, including its storied basketball powerhouse, reached an unexpected end on Friday when the NCAA announced it would not issue major sanctions against the school.

The prolonged investigation focused on a major at the university, African and Afro-American Studies, where about 1,500 athletes over 18 years took advantage to make good grades with little to no work involved. The university’s defense did not focus on the legitimacy of the courses—the NCAA said “generally, the facts of this case are not in dispute.”

UNC instead argued that any problem was university wide, not limited to the athletic department, because the courses were available to all students. On Friday, the NCAA accepted the university’s explanation. .

“A Division I Committee on Infractions hearing panel could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules when it made available deficient Department of African and Afro-American Studies ‘paper courses’ to the general student body, including student-athletes,” the NCAA said Friday.

Greg Sankey, the head of the Southeastern Conference who was the chief hearing officer on the panel, said athletes “likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’” but that “the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes.”

Just so we are clear exactly what we are talking about, UNC freely admits, in fact desperately argues, that it was offering courses like this:

UNC’s surprising defense focused on its own systemic shortcomings. It said that the problems were so fundamental at the school, it wasn’t actually an NCAA issue, and therefore wasn’t for the NCAA to govern. One estimate said athletes made up about half of the roughly 3,100 students who participated in the classes.

These classes were generally portrayed and shown to be fake for the most part. The NCAA, in its decision, said the classes did not require attendance. The students rarely, “if at all” interacted with a faculty member. The classes typically required one paper where the person who graded it admitted she did not read them in the entirety. These classes, the NCAA said, had “liberal grading.”

For reference, the entire UNC system (not just this location) consumes about 12.5% of the entire North Carolina state budget.

Update:  I was thinking over the weekend about whether this really horrible level of education for the money could be considered racist, since a substantially disproportionate number of the students in this department are black.  If one argues that the value of college is in the education itself, then it is preposterously racist, particularly since it hurts minorities at other colleges by reinforcing the general stereotype of low academic standards in race studies programs.  If one argues that the value of college is only in the degree itself - the piece of paper - I suppose one could consider this affirmative action.

Yet Again, Forgetting the Mix

I like reading Zero Hedge, though their laudable cynicism about government and financial markets sometimes edges into conspiracy theory.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight something in a post there today about BLS data.  Various writers at the site have claimed for years that government economic data is being manipulated.  I am not sure I buy it -- I distrust government a lot but am not sure their employees could sustain such a fraud over months and years.  And besides, once you manipulate data one time to juice some metric, you have to keep doing it or the metric just reverses the next month.   Corporations that play special quarter-end inventory games to increase reported sales learn this very quickly.  Where there are apparent errors, I am much more willing to assume incompetence than conspiracy.

The example this week is from the BLS payrolls data, and I will quote from the article and show their chart:

Another way of showing the July to August data:

  • Goods-Producing Weekly Earnings declined -0.8% from $1,118.68 to $1,109.92
  • Private Service-Providing Weekly Earnings declined -0.1% from $868.80 to $868.18
  • And yet, Total Private Hourly Earnings rose 0.2% from $907.82 to %909.19

What the above shows is, in a word, impossible: one can not have the two subcomponents of a sum-total decline, while the total increases. The math does not work.

Certainly this is an interesting catch and if I were producing the data I would take these observations as a reason to check my work.  But the author is wrong to say that this is "impossible".  The reason is that these are not, as he says, two sub-components of a sum. They are two sub-components of a weighted average.  Total private average weekly earnings is going to be the goods producing weekly average times number of goods producing hours plus service producing weekly average times the number of service producing hours all over the total combined hours.

From this I hope you can see that even if the both sub averages go down, the total average can go up if the weights change.  Specifically, the total average can still go up if there is a mix shift from service providing to goods producing hours, since the average weekly wages of the latter are much higher than the former.  I will confess it would have to be a pretty big jump in mix.  The percent goods producing hours would have to rise from 15.6% to almost 17%, which strikes me as a very large jump for one month.  So I am not claiming this is what happened, but people miss the mix changes all the time.  I had to explain it constantly back in my corporate days.   Another example here.

Federal Government Punishing Private Individuals for the Fraud and Mistakes of Government Workers

From the LA Times, the US Government is demanding that soldiers repay enlistment bonuses years after they were promised

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.

But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.

Note that there is no implication that there was any fraud on the soldiers' part -- they were offered a fair exchange and they took it.  The Federal government is trying to punish soldiers for potentially illegal or fraudulent actions of government workers.  Now that the soldiers have provided the service they promised, the government is trying to take back the money it promised.  But the soldiers cannot in turn take back their service.

This sort of retroactive one-sided reneging on government contracts and promises is actually fairly common.  For example, I wrote about it here, where private creditors lost all the money they loaned to the government when it was determined that the government officials who approved the loans did not have the authority to do so.  The punishment for the government taking out loans it should not have was to allow the government to keep all the money and screw the  private parties who lent them money in good faith.

I actually have faced this same thing a number of times in my own business.  I pay the government concession fees for the public campgrounds we operate.  There is a process by which the government can ask us to pay these fees in kind by doing some of the government's capital maintenance for it.  The government likes this because we can spend the money more efficiently and get more done with it, and we (and our visitors) like it because the money gets spent right in the park where the customer fees were collected.  However, it has happened on a number of occasions that some internal audit has determined that some agency official approved an in-kind project they should not have. When this happens, the government often comes to me and tells me that they need the money back.  My response is consistently something like, "Bullsh*t!  I have your approval to spend the money and your promise to be reimbursed in writing -- I can't unspend the money you asked me to spend.  There is absolutely no way I am going to pay the financial cost of you violating your own rules."

The Madness of Shareholder Lawsuits

At least one investor (and likely soon many more) in Theranos is suing the company:

When Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that the company was shifting its focus, she said her team is lucky to have investors who believe in its mission. But there's at least one major investor who doesn't, and it has already sued the controversial blood-testing provider. According to The Wall Street Journal, Partner Fund Management (PFM) LP is accusing the startup of convincing it to pour $100 million into the startup by feeding it a "series of lies." The San Francisco-based hedge fund firm filed the lawsuit in Delaware today and sent out a letter to its own investors.

In the letter, the firm said:

"Through a series of lies, material misstatements, and omissions, the defendants (Theranos), engaged in securities fraud and other violations by fraudulently inducing PFM to invest and maintain its investment in the company."

At some level, shareholder lawsuits are utter madness.  Consider the case where all owners of a company are suing the company.  If they win, the amount they win from the company is offset by a drop in value of their ownership in the company.  At best this is a break-even proposition but when lawyers fees are included, this is a recipe for immense value destruction.

I am not really an insider on these things, but my guess is that the explanation for the madness comes by relaxing my assumption above that "all owners" are suing.   If only one owner is suing, then this becomes a potential mechanism for transferring value from other owners or investors.  There are of course real situations where a certain minority class of shareholders is screwed by the majority, but I don't think that is the case here.  In the case of Theranos, I assume the whole company is headed into a messy bankruptcy, and PFM is racing to the courthouse to be first in what is sure to become a messy litigation-fest.  They likely have one or both of these goals

  • Since they likely cannot sell their equity and cash out normally, given the uncertainty about the company's future,  they may be able to effectively cash out by getting other owners to pay them off in a settlement of this suit.
  • Since their equity may be worth zero soon, if they can win a lawsuit the payout becomes a much more senior form of indebtedness and might move them up towards the front of the line for any value that still exists in the company

Update:  From one of my readers at a CPA firm:  A key reason for shareholder suits is to trigger insurance coverage payouts for management and/or Board errors and omissions.  This in theory both increases the company’s assets and creates a senior claim by the plaintiffs to those particular assets.

The Lifestyle Charity Fraud

For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name.  I call it the "lifestyle" charity or non-profit.  These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators.  These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators.  Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.

I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities -- having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni.  They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling.  I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself.  They drive me crazy.  They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.  My dad, who used his substantial business success to do meaningful things in the world virtually anonymously (like helping save a historically black college from financial oblivion), had great disdain for these people running lifestyle charities.

So I suppose the one good thing about the Clinton Foundation is it is raising some awareness about this kind of fraud.   This article portrays the RFK Human Rights charity as yet another example of this lifestyle charity fraud.

Are You In Control of Electronic Payments from Your Checking Account?

If your business is like mine, a lot of folks to whom I owe money are insisting on the ability to automatically remove the money I owe them each month from our checking account (via an electronic process known as ACH, which is slower but much cheaper and easier to use than the old wire transfer method).  At first, any loan I took out insisted that the lender be able to automatically withdraw my payments.  Then my workers compensation company.  Then certain vendor accounts.  And of course my merchant processing companies are constantly shoving money in and out of my bank accounts.

In retrospect, I was far too sanguine about this situation.  What finally caused me to abandon my sense of security was a libel lawsuit filed by one of my vendors over a bad review I wrote of their product [I won't mention the name here but I am sure anyone can figure it out with a simple search].  Anyway, I realized that this company, who was suing me for untold bazillions of dollars, actually had the right to freely jack whatever they wanted out of my checking account.  What is worse, this same company is being sued by many companies for trying to take an arbitrarily high final payment out of their accounts at contract termination.  Eeek!  And this does not even include the possibility of outright fraud.  I have ACH tools where if I have your bank's name and your account number, I could pull out money from your account without your ever knowing about it until you see it missing.  I presume criminals could do the same thing.

Something had to be done, and it turned out that my bank, Bank of America, has something called ACH positive pay wherein nothing gets ACH'ed out of my accounts without my first approving the payments.   I check a screen each morning and in 60 seconds can do the approvals for the day.  They also have a very easy to use rules system where one can set up rules such that payments to certain vendors or for certain amounts don't need further daily approvals.

I presume most major banks have a similar product.  It cost me some money but I feel way safer and encourage you to look into it if you are in the same situation.

Of Course There Are Accusations of Fraud in Iowa...

...Because the caucus process is absolutely backwards.  It uses non-anonymous voting, for god sakes.   Sophisticated democracies adopted anonymous voting centuries ago for really good reasons -- in particular it limited the ability to pressure people before and after their vote.  So no one should be surprised that a stupid system without anonymity designed to allow voters to "persuade" people voting for someone else over to their side results in stories of coercion and fraud.  Iowa should not be the first primary, not the least because of the damn ethanol issue but also because their process is archaic.

Unemployment Insurance Fraud Tricks

Typically, I see a LOT of people with no intention of working or looking for work collecting unemployment insurance payments.  For example, we have summer workers who take the winter off but still collect unemployment in the winter as if they were looking for work.  Most state governments have no desire to hear about this.  In fact, in California (at least a number of years ago) if you call the unemployment fraud number the only kind of complaint they take is reports of employer fraud.  You can't actually report employee fraud, and the one time I tried to do so I was threatened by a California State employee with dire legal consequences for "harassment" and "retaliation".

The new dodge I saw the other day is when Company A goes to an employee of Company B and offers to hire them away for higher pay.  When the employee leaves B for A, A tells them that they should file for unemployment, claiming they were forced out rather than quit (essentially constructive termination).  In most states, if an employee says one thing (I was forced out!) and an employer says another (She quit!), the employee is almost always believed unless the employer can bring an absurd amount of written evidence to the table to prove otherwise.

Anyway, having convinced the state the employee was terminated rather than quit, the employee collects unemployment benefits.   Then, company A pays the employee in cash under the table an amount per hour less than minimum wage but which in combination with the state unemployment payments does indeed add up to more than they were making at B.  They end up paying less than minimum wage and pay no employment taxes (since it is cash under the table) and the state makes up the difference with an unemployment check.  Company B, by the way, sees its unemployment taxes go way up because these rates are experience-based.

Chip Card Transition, And Life as A Small Business Owner

Well, per the new rules, we replaced all of our old credit card readers (dozens) with new ones that can take chip cards (EMV).  Here is the bone pile of all the old technology, many of which were bought less than 2 years ago:

CameraZOOM-20151104114553578

This illustrates both the best and worst of running one's own company.

The bad:  As CEO, I am actually futzing with distributing credit card terminals to the field and collecting the used ones to be recycled.

The good:  I have total control.  I was just in Washington DC, and in one meeting the National Park Service was there talking about some multi-year, multi-million dollar study to figure out their electronic payments "strategy" at their parks.  My payments strategy discussion went literally something like this:

Merchant guy:  Do you want to pay an extra $100 for the terminals to accept NFC payments (e.g. Apply pay, Android pay).

Me: Um, sure seems like the future.  Does it cost more to clear a transaction that way?

Merchant guy: no

Me:  They yes, I'll take it.

Now, we can take smart phone payments at dozens of public parks my company operates, all decided and implemented in about 30 days.

By the way, I am amazed at how many large companies like CVS appear to have the chip card readers but the store clerk tells me that they are not turned on yet whenever I try to stick my card in that slot (for those of you who don't know, the chip side goes head into a slot like an ATM slot on the front).  October 1 was the date that there was a liability shift, where merchants bear more liability for fraud if they don't take the chipcards.  Not sure how I was able to get this done in my little company but they can't manage it.

I was told by one person at CVS, a store manager but they may be off base, that they don't take the chip cards yet because they take longer than swiping.  This seems dumb.  First, many retailers for swipe cards waste time asking for the last four digits of your card, which is not necessary with the chip cards.  Further, CVS wastes a TON of time at the register with their stupid loyalty program.  Yes, I know it is a pet peeve of mine I rant on from time to time, but I have spent a lot of time waiting for people in front of me to try different phone numbers to see which one their account is under, or to waste time signing up for a loyalty card with 6 people in line behind them.  Makes me crazy.  If they can waste 30 seconds each transaction on stupid loyalty cards they can wait three extra seconds for a more secure credit card transaction.

Postscript:  It really should have been chip and pin rather than chip and signature

PS2:  Never, ever lease a credit card machine.  You pay about 4x its retail price, even present value.  I got roped into doing this for a few machines on the logic that this equipment transition was coming, and they would switch out my equipment.  But then they sold their leasing portfolio and the new owner wouldn't honor this promise, so I ended up overpaying for the old terminal (and having to pay $1000 each just to get out of the lease) and then buying the new terminals.  Live and learn.

You Want to Know Why the Legal System is Broken?

I got a notice in my email that I was potentially a member of a class action against LinkedIn.  What is the case?

The Action challenges LinkedIn's use of a service called Add Connections to grow its member base. Add Connections allows LinkedIn members to import contacts from their external email accounts and email connection invitations to one or more of those contacts inviting them to connect on LinkedIn. If a connection invitation is not accepted within a certain period of time, up to two "reminder emails" are sent reminding the recipient that the connection invitation is pending. The Court found that members consented to importing their contacts and sending the connection invitation, but did not find that members consented to LinkedIn sending the two reminder emails [plaintiffs seem to have other grievances but this is the only one they say the court validated].

You have got to be kidding me.  How much time and money has been spent on this stupidity?

So I wanted to tell them to go screw themselves, and that this was not done in my name and I want nothing to do with it.  Of course there are simple web forms for joining the class and asking for payment, but to be excluded one has to follow a series of detailed instructions and send a snail mail.  Apparently if I do nothing I am part of this fraud whether I want to be or not.  I particularly like the last line of the opt-out instructions (FAQ #9)

This request must include the case number of the Action (Case No. 5:13-CV-04303-LHK), your name, address, email address, phone number and signature, and a statement that you wish to be excluded from the Settlement Class.  If the exclusion request does not include all of this information, or if it is sent to an address other than the above, or if it is not postmarked within the time specified, it will be invalid, and you will remain a member of the Settlement Class and be bound as a Class Member by the Settlement Agreement, if approved.  “Mass” or “class” opt-outs purporting to be made on behalf of multiple persons or classes of persons shall not be allowed.

So mass torts purporting to be made on behalf of a class of persons without even consulting them are A-OK, but mass opt-outs from the class are not allowed.

Postscript:  At first I thought the opt-out headache was the plaintiff's attorney trying to protect their fees, but their fees seem set.  In retrospect, my guess is the difficult opt-out comes from the defense, because opting out leaves one eligible to sue again and having settled this one, I am sure LinkedIn does not want a second class trying to take a second bite of the apple.

Followup #2:  Engadget's reaction to the case:  Oh look, free money!

And the sum is likely to be small, though LinkedIn promised to increase the total amount by $750,000 if individual payouts are less than $10. Still, money is money, so if you're willing to swear that the company spammed folks on your behalf, you can apply for compensation here.

I do not know this author's politics, but I can say from personal experience that the majority of the most breathtakingly amoral statements about money I have heard in real life (ie excluding cartoon lines written by Hollywood for business people) have come from Progressives.

My New Worst Business Ever: YP

YP is the modern name for what used to be the Yellow Pages.  Obviously, yellow pages are a dying business.  Ten years ago the Phoenix Yellow Pages had to be broken up into two books, each a couple inches think.  I happened to see one the other day, and it was the size of a short novel.  They tried to move to the web, but who goes to Yp.com (vs. google or Yelp) to find a business?

Even in the glory days of yellow pages, it was always hard to cancel their service.  If you did not tell them by like August, they would start billing you for the next year and sic a collection agency on you if you disputed it.

However, it appears that now that YP is a dying business, and knows that each lost customer will likely never be replaced, it has turned into the Hotel California.

In 2013, I left a location in Ventura County.   We had advertised in the Yellow Pages for years (back when it made sense) and had never been able to cancel it in time -- by the time we remembered it each year it had already auto renewed.   Soon after we left, I notified them that we needed to cancel.  At the time, I tried to negotiate a reduction in the 2014 charges but figured I probably would have to pay them, which I did.

Then, in 2015 I started getting bills.  I called each month patiently explaining and sending letters that we had already cancelled.  They would say that they had no record of my ever calling, but they swore they would mark the account as closed and that it would be fixed.  Then the next month it would all repeat -- a bad customer service Groundhog Day.

Finally this week I started getting legal threats and collection agency notices that I owe $499 for 2015 and that my life would be left in ruins with the ground salted if I did not pay immediately.  So I called today and AGAIN they had no record of my cancelling -- in fact, it was on a path to renew again for 2016.

Look, I am the first to tell folks to never chalk up to conspiracy what can as easily be explained by mass incompetence.  But at some point one has to suspect there is fraud going on here to retain customers as long as possible for a dying service.

So here is what I am left with -- I found someone in their organization who may be willing to settle my non-debt for non-services for a couple of hundred.  I told them this was absurd, since I did not owe it, but that I would pay a couple hundred dollars if they would give me a letter that said the account is closed and fully settled.  From the outside, this may seem a bad trade.  But I have enough lawyers in my life and hiring lawyers would be the only way to solve this any other way.  And besides, $200 is cheap compared to the thousands of dollars of my personal time I have spent farting with this.

Update 9/27/15:  God, this is Groundhog Day!  YP said that I should send a certified letter to such and such address to make absolutely sure that my account was cancelled.  I sent it to that exact address, braving a 30-minute line at the post office to do so.   So of course, the letter just came back undeliverable.  I have held off saying this, but these guys are total scam artists.  They seem to have no intention of ever letting me leave.

Must Make for Interesting Family Dinners: If Anything, Ellen Pao's Husband is In The Middle of An Even Bigger Mess

Ellen Pao has had some career problems of late, but as I wrote yesterday, if she takes some responsibility for her own mis-steps and stops blaming it all on misogyny, she might learn something useful and build positive things on the experience.

A very loyal reader gives me a heads up that her husband, who is never mentioned in recent stories, actually faces a LOT more serious trouble (it is probably journalistically appropriate to leave her husband out of the recent stories, but one wonders if the New York Times would show the same scruples on a story about the CEO of Exxon if, say, his wife were independently in the midst of some sort of scandal).

Ellen Pao's husband is Buddy Fletcher, former Wall Street Wunderkind and now subject of a LOT of regulator scrutiny and pension fund lawsuits.  Here is one:

The firefighters’ system eventually said yes, and along with two other pension funds — the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System and the New Orleans Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund — invested a combined $100 million in one of Mr. Fletcher’s funds, FIA Leveraged. As they understood it, the fund would invest in liquid securities that could be sold in a matter of weeks.

The details sounded, as one board member put it, “too good to be true.”

In fact, they were.

Mr. Fletcher’s hedge fund has since been described by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee as having elements of a Ponzi scheme, and four retirement systems are fighting to recover their money. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in March on a plan to liquidate the fund’s assets, which the trustee deemed “virtually worthless” in a report last November.

And another:

New York investment manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. is being sued by the MBTA Retirement Fund and some of his own hedge funds on accusations that he defrauded them of more than $50 million.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in New York, accuses Fletcher and his firm, Fletcher Asset Management , and other parties of conducting a “long-running fraud” in which they misused money for their own benefit, inappropriately took inflated management fees, and overstated the value of assets.

As previously reported, the MBTA pension fund invested $25 million with Fletcher in 2007 on the advice of the fund’s former executive director, Karl White.

White pitched the investment to the pension fund just nine months after he had resigned to work for Fletcher.

The pension fund’s holding is now worthless, and the bankruptcy trustee investigating the case has alleged that Fletcher never invested the money as promised.

And here is an older, in-depth look at Fletcher.

It is starting to look like most of the money went to his family (e.g. $8 to his brother to fund a film), to buffing his image (e.g. $4+ million donation to Harvard), and to an incredibly opulent lifestyle (e.g. 4!! apartments in the Dakota).

Despite the fact that he seems to have grossly overstated income and assets of his funds, no one -- regulators, clients, auditors -- figured it out.  The most interesting part to me was the first group to detect the potential fraud was, of all groups, the governing board of the Dakota.  This group, full of successful Wall Streeters, looked at his financial statements and turned down his application to buy yet another apartment, coming to the conclusion he not only did not have the funds to buy this apartment but they were unsure how he was paying the vig on the $20 million loan securitized by his existing apartments.

One thing Fletcher apparently has in common with his wife is that he seems to respond to every negative business decision with a discrimination lawsuit.  This one backfired, however, and only served to point public attention to the fact that a group of savvy financiers thought Fletcher's wealth was potentially imaginary.  Government investigations and lawsuits have followed.

He still has a chance to escape, though.  Despite Jon Corzine's outright theft of funds from MF Global commodity investor accounts, he got off scott-free due to his close ties to the Democratic Party.  Time for Fletcher to start giving any free assets he still holds (if there are any) to Hillary's campaign.

Excellent Slate Article on GMO Safety

It is a long article, covering a lot of ground, and is full of links to literature on both sides of the debate.  But its conclusions are pretty definite

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

This is just the management summary, the article goes into great depth on all of these.

 

Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.

TDK-joker-grenades

 

 

Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?

Wow. IRS Caught in a Huge Lie

I had no problem assuming the "lost" IRS emails were incompetence rather than criminal evidence tampering.  After all, how hard is it to believe the government is incompetent?

But it may be in this case it really was fraud.  Suddenly the emails have been found, and they were apparently always there  -- despite all protestations to the contrary, no one in the IRS had even asked for them.  From the WaPo:

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday that it tracked down nearly 33,000 emails from ex-IRS official Lois Lerner.

The records date back to 2001, which is 10 years beyond what the IRS has said it could access for investigators.

The inspector general’s office said it is working to identify any messages that the IRS has not already sent to congressional investigators, who are examining the Lerner’s involvement in the IRS targeting scandal.

The watchdog agency found the backed-up emails by consulting with IRS information-technology specialists, according to TIGTA Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Tim Camus.

They were right where you would expect them to be,” he said at the rare late-night hearing, which lasted until about 10 p.m.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress last year that the backups were no help in recovering Lerner’s lost emails, in part because the IRS overwrites them every six months.

Camus said the IRS’s technology specialists told investigators that no one from the agency asked for the tapes, raising doubts about whether the agency did its due diligence in trying to locate Lerner’s emails, or possibly greater troubles.

 

My Emotional Support Alpaca

This is a great article about the fraudulent practices people pursue to try to take advantage of rules about service animals that help people with true disabilities to bring their pets with them everywhere.  This kind of crap strikes me as being in the same category as folks who used to hire disabled kids to go to Disneyworld with them so they could skip the lines (a practice, by the way, that led to Disney giving fewer special privileges to handicapped kids because of the abuse).

I will say from personal experience that the pressure on service businesses to succumb to this sort of service animal fraud is immense, especially in places like California where the financial penalties for even tiny well-meaning infractions of bewildering ADA rules are substantial.  My employees once felt they had to allow a woman to bring her horse (!) into the park because she had letters like the ones in this article saying she required the horse for emotional support.

This week I was at a conference where a featured speaker was an executive of the Forest Service named Joe Meade who happens to be blind.  I say "happens to" because Joe is one of the best, and best-loved, executives in that organization and what makes him great has little or nothing to do with his disability.  But I watched him work his way through a hotel with his service dog -- a casino hotel I got lost in about 4 times and I could read the signs -- and the skills that dog had are simply amazing.  Service dogs like that get deference from service businesses for a reason.  It infuriates me that people are trying to counterfeit that kind of credential so they don't have to pay an extra airplane fare for their cat.  And the only way they get away with it is because of our screwed up tort system that leaves service businesses at the mercy of even the most outrageous claims.  Because we businesses have given up on, particularly in places like California, ever getting real justice.

hattip:  Overlawyered.