Topic: Regulatory Studies

How to Kill a Company: A Beginner’s Guide (Chapter 1, P. 1.)

As described in the current Cato Policy Report, one of the “Hard Lessons from the Auto Bailout” is that management at GM is likely to be “highly erratic, as the president and Congress wrestle for decisionmaking primacy at this majority taxpayer-owned entity.”  The “dealerships” issue is Exhibit A.

One of GM’s first decisions upon emerging from bankruptcy was to announce closures of a number of dealerships to help reduce costs. Then-nominal-CEO Fritz Henderson explained that the planned closings would save GM about $100 in distribution costs per vehicle–a few hundred million dollars per year when factoring in the millions of units GM expects to produce.

But many of GM’s congressional CEOs cried foul, demanding reconsideration from a company that had taken public funds.  The House of Representatives even passed a bill requiring companies that received federal funds to reestablish terminated dealership agreements, though no action was taken in the Senate.

However, as reported in The Hill today, Congress is fast-tracking legislation to restrict GM’s (and Chrysler’s) closings, by subjecting each decision to an arbitrator, who will “balance the economic interests of the terminated dealership, the car companies and the general public.”  A Senate aide is cited as saying legislators intend to pass this measure before Christmas.

Well, look, EVERY decision GM makes will produce winners and losers in terms of real and opportunity costs.   Hence, EVERY decision is just as worthy of legislative or executive scrutiny, if the dealership issue is the litmus test. 

With 537 CEOs, all but one of whom have bigger priorities than GM’s bottom line, GM’s future will be dictated by splitting differences, political logrolling, and managing by consensus–tactics that will assure GM’s demise.

Schools and Rotten Meat

LunchladydorisUSA Today has been running a lengthy series on the condition of food sold through federal school lunch programs, and today’s installment is particularly interesting. It turns out that fast-food chains like Jack in the Box and Burger King – predatory capitalists who want nothing more than to make filthy lucre off of unsuspecting hungry people – have much higher meat quality standards than does the selfless government sworn to protect the public.

How can that be? Oh right: As I wrote in my paper “Corruption in the Public Schools: The Market Is the Answer,” companies that have to attract and keep customers to stay in business have a huge incentive to avoid such things as, you know, sending their customers to the hospital! Not so government bureaucrats or educationists, who are getting your tax dollars no matter what.

This is a basic, basic reality that is all but totally ignored by people who insist we need government to protect us from evil corporations. And it is doubly ignored (if that’s logically possible) in education, where the assumption is that government must provide the schools if they are to be any good, and that profit-seekers are handmaids of the devil.

And so I ask (only slightly tongue-in-cheek): How many more children have to get E. coli before we allow freedom in education?

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

Congress Grows Fed Up

The Wall Street Journal reported that Congress likes Fed Chairman Bernanke, but not the institution that he heads. There is growing consensus that the Fed needs to be reformed and restructured.  Most notably, there are calls to strip the Fed of its supervisory authority.  In practice, the new sentiment reflects the failure of the Fed to rein in risk taking by the largest banks.

The Fed is pushing back.  One reserve bank president said that removing the Fed’s supervisory authority “would affect our ability to conduct monetary authority effectively.” He went on to say that without the supervisory authority, the Fed wouldn’t know enough about risks brewing in the economy.  This argument is shop worn. The Fed had the authority. It fueled the housing boom with its monetary policy and failed to head off the banking crisis with its supervisory powers. And let us not forget the regional banking crises of the 1990s; the fallout of the Latin American debt crisis for Citibank; and others (e.g., the failure of Continental Illinois National Bank).  All on the Fed’s watch.

Around the world, some central banks have supervisory authority over banks and some do not.  There is no clear pattern for either monetary policy or bank regulation with respect to how the powers are structured and distributed.  Other factors seem to matter much more. It would be useful to identify what they are.

Congress is moving a few deck chairs around as the ship sinks. No fundamental rethinking of bank regulation is occurring. The Fed is probably being made a scapegoat for Congress’s own failings.  But that is how Washington works.

The Negative Feedback Loop Begins

I wrote on the Tech Liberation Front blog a couple of months ago about the shady practice among a few Internet retailers of handing off customers who accept a “special offer” to a company that charges people a monthly fee for some kind of credit monitoring service. And I argued hopefully that maybe technologists and the Internet community could generate a response to this problem:

Being a smart, informed, and aggressive consumer is each person’s responsibility if a free market is to operate well. The alternative is a negative feedback loop in which government authorities protect us, we rely on that protection and stop policing retailers. Thereby we abandon the field of consumer protection to government authorities, who—try as they might—can never do as good a job for us as we can for ourselves.

The Senate Commerce Committee is having a hearing today on “Aggressive Sales Tactics on the Internet and Their Impact on American Consumers.”

Big Business Not Investing

In a recent post, I argued that while third-quarter GDP was positive, the underlying data revealed that U.S. private investment was still in the toilet. While government spending might be providing a short-term “sugar high” for the economy, U.S. business investment remains in recession. I speculated that Obama’s anti-business agenda is likely one cause of the problem.

For those observations, economist Brad DeLong called me an “utter fool.”

Let me draw your attention to an article in the Washington Post today entitled “Corporate giants sit on piles of cash.” Nucor Steel is sitting on piles of cash that it is unwilling to invest. Nucor’s chief executive Daniel Dimicco explains:

Everything is still on hold because we don’t have a lot of confidence that the right things are being done in Washington to reinvigorate the economy.

To story goes on:

Nucor isn’t alone. The balance sheets of large U.S. corporations are for the most part in good shape. Many big companies have piles of cash on hand and credit markets have thawed so that they can raise new funds… But most U.S. executives lack enough confidence in the economy to expand their businesses.

The article explains how big businesses are “jittery” for various reasons, such as memories of last year’s credit crunch. It doesn’t mention President Obama’s policies, but at this point in the economic cycle when world growth is returning, the lack of excitement by U.S. businesses regarding domestic investment is very curious.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is giving them nothing to get excited about. The President is promising them higher health care costs, higher corporate taxes, more labor regulations, higher energy costs with cap-and-trade, and a lack of interest in further trade agreements.

The Post article says that some U.S. multinationals are using their hoards of cash to invest abroad, allowing them to avoid punitive treatment under the high-rate U.S. corporate income tax.

How do we get U.S. multinationals to start investing their “piles of cash” in the United States? Cut the U.S. corporate rate permanently to 15 percent, as I’ve described in Global Tax Revolution. With just about every other advanced economy having slashed their corporate rate in recent years, we are “utter fools” for not following suit, especially with the unemployment rate now topping 10 percent.

The Real Story Behind the Chrysler Bankruptcy

If you worry about the abuse of executive power and declining respect among elected officials for the rule of law, you should watch this eloquent illumination of what really went down in the Chrysler bankruptcy earlier this year. The speaker is Richard Mourdock, Treasurer of the state of Indiana. The setting is a Cato Institute policy forum on October 15 about the “sordid details of the Bush/Obama auto industry intervention.”

As state treasurer, Mourdock is the person responsible for investment decisions concerning Indiana’s state employee pension funds, some of which owned a small share of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion in secured debt and some of which opposed the administration’s offer of $.29 on the dollar for that debt. Though these small secured holders were publicly castigated by President Obama as “unpatriotic” and unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good, Mourdock led the effort to stop the “sale” of Chrysler all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mourdock’s presentation gives a flavor for the tactics employed by the  Obama administration to “encourage” senior, priority creditors to back off their claims so that chosen parties could take priority—tactics that included backroom reminders that some of those creditors had received and might seek more TARP funding, threats of bringing the full weight and measure of the White House press office to bear down on dissenters, public condemnation, and other forms of arm-twisting most Americans would find unseemly for a U.S. presidential administration.

At the Cato event, Mr. Mourdock was joined by University of Pennsylvania Law School professor and corporate law expert David Skeel, who demonstrated quite clearly that the “sale” of Chrysler, as orchestrated by the Obama administration under cover of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, was indeed a sham sale. Skeel’s presentation begins at 20:15 of this video.

If you want to have a better sense of what’s going on in Washington (or to affirm your worries), I recommend you watch Mourdock here, listen to Mourdock here, read the Indiana Pensioners’ petition for Writ of Certiorari (appeal to the Supreme Court), and read the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in support of the Indiana pensioners here.