Tag: business

Attention GM Shareholders (That Means You!)

As my colleague Doug Bandow pointed out this morning, today’s Washington Post has an analysis about the uncertain prospects of GM ever making taxpayers whole again. It is a very similar analysis to the one I gave in this L.A. Times Dust-Up installment four weeks ago, although I find prospects unlikely, rather than just uncertain.

If GM emerges from bankruptcy next month in accordance with the pre-packaged Obama plan (as expected), taxpayers will be on the hook for $50 billion. That $50 billion will buy taxpayers a 60 percent stake in the company, which according to the laws of mathematics means that GM has to be worth $83.33 billion for the taxpayers to get their equity back without making a dime in capital gains or interest.  In the L.A. Times, I asked:

How and when will that ever happen? At its peak in 2000, GM’s value (based on its market capitalization) stood at $60 billion. Thus, the minimum benchmark for “success” will require a 38% increase in GM’s value from where it was in the heady days of 2000, when Americans were purchasing 16 million vehicles per year. U.S. demand projections for the next few years come in at around 10 million vehicles. Taxpayer ownership of GM is something we should all get used to, and the “investment” is only going to grow larger. Think Amtrak.

Don’t Count on Getting Your “Investment” Back from Government Motors

The president and his appointees have expressed their hope that Government Motors will eventually pay back taxpayers for their “forced investment” in the company.  But there aren’t many cases of this sort of lemon socialism actually paying off.

Now most everyone connected with GM is admitting the same thing.  Reports the Washington Post:

If a new General Motors emerges from bankruptcy as planned, U.S. financial aid for the company will expand to nearly $50 billion, but neither the government nor the company is forecasting how much of the public money will be repaid.

It’s sure to be a stretch. For the United States to fully recover its investment, the value of General Motors stock will have to reach levels it has never before attained.

“I’m not going to predict it – that’s not my job today,” GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said in a recent interview.

“I don’t know how much we’re going to recover,” a senior Obama administration official said as the company headed into bankruptcy last month.

This uncertainty stems from the difficulty in valuing the 60 percent GM stake that the United States will receive in exchange for the public investment. The government also gets preferred shares and other compensation.

The stake will be worth enough to fully cover the government’s direct investment only if GM’s stock rises above $68 billion. Even at its recent 2000 peak, GM’s stock was worth only $56 billion.

“I don’t see GM hitting those benchmarks in a very long time,” said Maryann Keller, a veteran automotive analyst and author of “Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors,” which was published in 1989.

She noted that global competition will continue to squeeze American automakers. Though the world’s factories can produce about 100 million vehicles a year, demand for them only stands at about 55 million, and the gap will push prices and profits down, she said.

“It’s very unlikely” that the government will recover its money, said David Whiston, auto equities analyst at Morningstar. “GM will be a smaller company after the bankruptcy and there are going to be more foreign automakers entering the market that will make GM’s efforts more difficult.”

Oh, well.  As they say, it’s only money!

Buy American Hurts Most Americans

Earlier today, Doug Bandow weighed in with some commentary on the problems that Buy American provisions are creating for both Canadian and American businesses. Let me reinforce his view that such rules are anachronistic and self-defeating with some thoughts from a forthcoming paper of mine about the incongruity between modern commercial reality and trade policies that have failed to keep pace.

Even though President Obama implored, “If you are considering buying a car, I hope it will be an American car,” it is nearly impossible to determine objectively what makes an American car. The auto industry provides a famous example, but is really just one of many that transcends national boundaries and renders obsolete the notion of international competition as a contest between “our” producers and “their” producers. The same holds true for industries throughout the manufacturing sector.

Dell is a well known American brand and Nokia a popular Finnish brand, but neither makes its products in the United States or Finland, respectively. Some components of products bearing the logos of these internationally recognized brands might be produced in the “home country.” But with much greater frequency nowadays, component production and assembly operations are performed in different locations across the global factory floor. As IBM’s chief executive officer put it: “State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice.”

The distinction between what is and what isn’t American or Finnish or Chinese or Indian has been blurred by foreign direct investment, cross-ownership, equity tie-ins, and transnational supply chains. In the United States, foreign and domestic value-added is so entangled in so many different products that even the Buy American provisions in the recently-enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, struggle to define an American product without conceding the inanity of the objective.

The Buy American Act restricts the purchase of supplies that are not domestic end products.  For manufactured end products, the Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a domestic end product: (1) The article must be manufactured in the United States; and (2) The cost of domestic components must exceed 50 percent of the cost of all the components. Thus, the operational definition of an American product includes the recognition that “purebred” American products are increasingly rare.

Shake your head and chuckle as you learn that even the “DNA” of the U.S. steel industry, which pushed for adoption of the most restrictive Buy American provisions and which has been the manufacturing sector’s most vocal proponent of trade barriers over the years, is difficult to decipher nowadays. The largest U.S. producer of steel is the majority Indian-owned company Arcelor-Mittal. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is in the process of completing a $3.7 billion green field investment in a carbon and stainless steel production facility in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 permanent jobs. And most of the carbon steel shipped from U.S. rolling mills—as finished hot-rolled or cold-rolled steel, or as pipe and tube—is produced in places like Canada, Brazil and Russia, and as such is disqualified from use in U.S. government procurement projects for failure to meet the statutory definition of American-made steel.

Whereas a generation ago the cost of a product bearing the logo of an American company may have comprised exclusively U.S. labor, materials, and overhead, today that is much less likely to be the case. Today, that product is more likely to reflect foreign value-added, regardless of whether the product was “completed” in the United States or abroad. Accordingly, Buy American rules and trade barriers of any kind (as appealing to politicians as they may be) hurt most American businesses, workers, and consumers.

It’s time to wake up and scrap these stupid rules.

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.

Richard Epstein on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago and New York University, finds much to worry about in Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court:

The treatment of the compensation packages of key AIG executives (which eventually led to the indecorous resignation of Edward Liddy), and the massive insinuation of the executive branch into the (current) Chrysler and (looming) General Motors bankruptcies are sure to generate many a spirited struggle over two issues that are likely to define our future Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. The level of property rights protection against government intervention on the one hand, and the permissible scope of unilateral action by the president in a system that is (or at least should be) characterized by a system of separation of powers and checks and balances on the other.

Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the “public use language.” Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion–one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights.

I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The “or else” was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: “We agree with the district court that [Wasser’s] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants’ demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation.”

Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court. 

Like FDR — In a Really Bad Way

President Barack Obama based his candidacy in part on the promise to set a new tone in Washington.  But we saw a much older tone emerge with his demonization of hedge funds over the Chrysler bankruptcy.  Reports the Washington Post:

President Obama’s harsh attack on hedge funds he blamed for forcing Chrysler into bankruptcy yesterday sparked cries of protest from the secretive financial firms that hold about $1 billion of the automaker’s debt.

Hedge funds and investment managers were irate at Obama’s description of them as “speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.”

“Some of the characterizations that were used today to refer to us as speculators or to say we’re looking for a bailout is really unfair,” said one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “What we’re looking for is a reasonable payout on the value of the debt … more in line with what unions and Fiat were getting.”

George Schultze, the managing member of the hedge fund Schultze Asset Management, a Chrysler bondholder, said, “We are simply seeking to enforce our bargained-for rights under well-settled law.”

“Hopefully, the bankruptcy process will help refocus on this issue rather than on pointing fingers at lenders,” he said.

I won’t claim any special expertise to parse who is responsible for what in the crash of the U.S.  (meaning Big Three) auto industry.  However, attacking people for exercising their legal rights and trashing those who make their business investing in companies hardly seems like the right way to get the U.S. economy moving again.

During the Depression, FDR’s relentless attacks on business and the rich almost certainly added to a climate of uncertainty that discouraged investment during tough times.  Why put your money at real risk when the president and his cohorts seem determined to treat you like the enemy?  While President Obama need not treat gently those who contributed to the current crisis by acting illegally or unscrupulously, he should not act as if those who simply aren’t willing to turn their economic futures over to the tender mercies of the White House are criminals.

We’ve just lived through eight years of bitter partisan warfare.  The president shouldn’t replace that with a jihad against businesses that resist increased government direction of the economy.

The Politics of Budget-Cutting

helicopterIn Washington, the symbolic almost always trumps the substantive.  Thus, legislators complain, for good reason, about pork and earmarks, which ran about $35 billion at their maximum, and ignore entitlements, which entail some $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

So it is with President Obama.  He continues the endless bailouts, which cumulatively now run around $13 trillion.  He proposed a $3.6 trillion budget and will leave us with a $1.4 trillion deficit next year–and nearly $5 trillion in additional debt on top of the massive deficits already projected over the coming decade.  But he asked his Cabinet officers to chop $100 million in administrative expenses.

And he says he doesn’t need a new helicopter.  Fiscal responsibility in action.

Alas, the helicopter, while costing billions, isn’t an easy budget target.

Reports the New York Times:

At a Washington conference on fiscal responsibility in February, President Obama tried to set the tone by saying he did not need the new costly presidential helicopters that had been ordered by the Bush administration.

“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” he said to laughter. On a more serious note, he added, “I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we’re going to have to fix it.”

But the president is learning that in the world of defense contracting, frugality can be expensive. Some lawmakers and military experts warn that his effort to avoid wasting billions of dollars could end up doing just that.

The administration’s plan to halt the $13 billion helicopter program, announced this month, will leave the government with little to show for the $3.2 billion it has spent since the Bush administration set out to create a futuristic craft that could fend off terrorist attacks and resist the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

Critics say the Pentagon would also spend at least $200 million in termination fees and perhaps hundreds of millions to extend the life of today’s aging fleet. As a result, several influential lawmakers and defense analysts are now calling for a compromise that would salvage a simpler version of the helicopter that is already being tested.

They say it could be a more palatable alternative in tough economic times than seeking new bids for a more advanced craft, which has proved difficult to develop.

No wonder Washington is known as a place where everything about government is permanent.  Once you start spending money on a program, it becomes extremely hard to stop.  Part of that is the political dynamic of interest groups, the problem so well dissected by the Public Choice economists.  And part of it is legal and procedural.  Contracts are let, cancellation fees are due.  It’s bad to waste money on a gold-plated helicopter.  It seems even worse to waste money developing a gold-plated helicopter, and then getting nothing at all by canceling it.

There is, however, an amazingly simple solution, of which Congress and the president apparently are not aware.

Don’t spend the money in the first place.  Eschew new programs.  Say no to special interests.  Let taxpayers keep more of their own money.

This approach would seem to make sense at any time.  But especially today, with the federal government facing a deficit approaching $2 trillion in 2009.

Didn’t Nancy Reagan lecture us to “just say no”?  We should invite her back for a return tour of Washington, only she should talk about federal spending this time.