Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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May 22, 2009

Now It's Municipal Bonds

The financial wizards who brought us the mortgage debacle now want to do the same for municipal bonds:

One piece of legislation would provide the Federal Reserve with the authority to fund new liquidity facilities for some municipal securities. Another would provide federal re-insurance for municipal bonds, which seeks to make it easier to for municipalities to issue municipal debt to raise money.


House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., defended legislation to create a federal re-insurer, arguing that the marketplace imposes unfairly high interest rates on municipal bonds, which typically have a lower rate of default than corporate bonds

"We need to have the safety of municipal bonds reflected in the interest payments on those bonds," Frank said. "The market plays a very important role but market failure is also a factor."
Well, he'd know about market failures, having helped create the last one.

What he wouldn't know, wouldn't have any idea about, is what the proper interest rate premiums are for municipal debt.  If Mr. Frank thinks that municipal debt is a bargain, he's always free to buy some.  Why doesn't he just suggest securitizing such debt and chartering companies to buy the securities?

There are already companies that insure municipal debt, so there are two, mutually-reinforcing markets already at work here.  If he really thinks that these companies are under-capitalized, there are plenty of regulatory remedies already available.

In fact, there's excellent reason to think that what's really going on here is an attempt to bail out California without having to tell people that's what you're doing.  Because they might not like that.

May 20, 2009

You Call This Capitalism?

If there's one thing that Ayn Rand and Albert Jay Nock both understood, it's that businessmen will cut deals with the government when they think it's to their advantage.  Economics may be the sea that business swims in, but if you need to buy off Ahab with a couple of the slower-moving whales well, hey, who asked them to be your calves?

The problem comes when business develops a sort of Stockholm Syndrome about the process, convincing itself - or trying to convince itself - that the presence of the whalers is actually a good thing, even as the herd gets thinner and thinner, the calves somehow never call and never write, and the cow down at the other end of the sand bar needs more and more plankton to get her in the mood.

That's the attitude on display by private equity fund mogul Scott Sperling's apologia in yesterday's Wall Street Journal ("Obama's Auto Plan Is Capitalism at Work").  Wrong on both strategy and tactics, is Mr. Sperling.

The Chrysler creditors are not bad or unpatriotic people. They are appropriately acting as good fiduciaries to their investors. But luckily for American citizens, the Obama administration is also acting appropriately by insisting it will only invest taxpayer dollars if the investment has a chance of succeeding. While the government was willing to pay a significant premium to the debtholders to avoid the "friction" costs that occur in a bankruptcy, the administration was not about to do anything stupid with our money.
There's almost nothing right with this paragraph.  In fact, the President did call the bondholders bad and unpatriotic.  Maybe some bondholders did bid up the price hoping for a government bailout of their own.  A nasty lesson in the dangers of arbitrary power may be valuable, but it's hardly, "capitalism."  And what of those who didn't, who merely priced in their place in line, free of public hectoring by the President?

There's nothing "capitalist" about the federal government going into partnership with the ruling party's major constituency.  Barring such partnership, there's no reason for it to care about bankruptcy's "friction" costs.  Sperling has no idea - none - whether the bondholders got a premium or not.   And while the government's new-found fiduciary conscience it touching, it would be more credible if it had shown up sometime before Obama Partners, ULC. contracted to double the national debt in four years.

Means matter.  If they didn't, we wouldn't have a Constitution that theoretically forbids this kind of neo-feudal behavior by Washington.  Even if, every time, the government managed to magically reproduce or improve on what the market or bankruptcy courts would have done, having a deus Obamica show up and bruit things about this way is extremely dangerous.

This is one reason I'm a Burkean conservative.  The bankruptcy laws have evolved over decades both to give order to the system, but also to embody a reasonably good way of sorting out competing interests.  No politician, or set of politicians is going, time after time, to do better than the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of thousands.

The self-deception that believes the lie
I wish I were in love again
Lorenz Hart, "I Wish I Were in Love Again," Babes in Arms
Mr. Sperling is a heavy, heavy Democratic contributor.  He's is in the business of brokering deals.  Why do I suspect the Mr. Sperling (and his partner, Thomas H. Lee) sleep well at night knowing - or at least, hoping - that it's unlikely that government's going to step in and rewrite their terms of their arrangements.  Beware, Mr. Sperling, many others have been rudely disabused of similar notions.

In the past, he and his company have refused to accept modified terms that didn't suit them.  We'd hear a different story if the government were a major investor in his latest fund, and started throwing its weight around to pick and choose his investments.

After all, we know how Tom Lauria reacted.

May 15, 2009

A Day Late, A Billion Dollars Short - Maybe

After forcibly nationalizing the banks in all but name, redistributing ownership of GM and Chrysler, and making noises about the necessity of absorbing GMAC, speculation was that the insurance companies are next.

And sure enough, today, the government announced that it was freeing up $22,000,000,000 for insurers who had applied for TARP funds back when they were supposed to be used for buying up toxic assets.

Now, having seen what happens to cities that make deals with the Empire companies that make deals with this administration, at least two of the insurance companies are putting the money down and backing away from the table, while two more are likely to do so. Prudential and Ameriprise are expected to say, thanks but no thanks, and Allstate and Principle are also looking at the money like a side-dish they hadn't ordered, although, of course, they had. Only Hartford and Lincoln(!) seem willing to take the cash.

It's hard to blame the reluctant four, as they have seen banks refused the opportunity to repay their, "loans," contracts broken, officers fired, budgets rewritten, and now talk of salaries being determined in DC. We now know that banks and their officers were threatened with audits, and pension funds and other bondholders with public "shaming," a la the AIG employees who stayed on to wind down the derivatives division. (No such fate seems to attach to any employee of Fannie or Freddie, but that's a subject for another day.)

That two companies are giving into temptation is might disappointing, but hardly surprising, as companies almost never keep a united front against government plans, whatever they may be. And I suspect that we haven't heard the last of this yet. The Obama Administration will almost certainly try to threaten and browbeat the reluctant insurers into taking the cash, or of finding ways to preference their competitors who do. Hopefully the holdouts will continue to do so.

If so, I know who I'll be using to insure my new Ford, when I need a new car.

May 1, 2009

Business Still Doesn't Get It

One stock that I followed at the brokerage, and which I own a couple of hundred shares of, is called Tetra Tech (TTEK).  When I get a chance, I like to listen to conference calls of companies I've done research on.  Even if I'm not actively modeling the companies right now, I'll learn something about their business, and usually about how they see the economy.

Now, TTEK is heavily dependent on government contracts, getting just under 50% of their net revenue from federal contracts, and another 15% or so from state and local governments.  Their main line of business is water projects, and they're also heavily involved in wind power, nuclear, and other alternative energy projects.  In fact, they make a good case that their work corresponds with the government's current priorities:

And one thing that is very clear to us here is, the clear priority of this administration and the majority party here in the United States are to support programs for clean water and water infrastructure, cleaning the environment and energy efficient buildings and energy independence while reducing CO2 emissions. And these are the markets that Tetra Tech is primarily focused on. So when their funding goes up, we are exactly in the right spot.

While they haven't built stimulus money into their projections, they consider themselves to have a natural advantage when that immedately-necessary, time-critical, urgently-needed cash starts to hit the market sometime in the next century:

...And from our perspective, the firms that will be the most successful are the ones that have contracts in place today.

I have said this before in our previous call but with two and half months gone by, since the signing of the Recover Act, it is increasingly important to get this into the economy fast. And the only way we see to do that is to go first to those as whole contracts.

Fair enough.  Except for two things.  First, one would thing that with two and a half months gone by, and the money still sitting in Beijing and Shanghai, they would have figured out that maybe getting the money to market isn't the most important thing on the government's mind.

Second, if the Chrysler and GM debacles have shown us anything, it's that where this money gets spent, and who gets to see it, is going to be determined by narrow political motives.  Period.

What's at work here is that too many in the business community don't understand that the game has changed.  Used to making deals enforceable by steady rules, they are ill-equipped for an environment where there are no rules and the deals only last as long as the President likes them to.

The TARP-entangled banks are learning this to their detriment, as are the GM and Chrysler bond-holders.  Soon, Ford will be find it out, when it finds itself forced to compete with union-owned car competitors for lending at government-held banks.

Those who say that the commercial credit markets will dry up aren't counting on the federal government forcing the banks to lend, quality of the borrower-be-damned.  And I'm afraid that the management of Tetra Tech is using entirely the wrong yardstick to measure how the government dole is going to work in the future.

April 30, 2009

Because It's Worked So Well In The Past

This, from tomorrow's Wall Street Journal:

The program is the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF, in which investors are given low-cost loans from the Fed and in turn use the money to buy securities backed by consumer debt. The loans in this program are three-year loans and so far have been aimed at car debt, credit-card debt and other consumer loans. The Fed is preparing to announce new loans with five-year terms to better match the needs of investors in commercial-mortgage-backed securities, an effort to boost that sector.

Officials have been reluctant to make such long-term loans, for fear five-year commitments could hamper the central bank's ability to withdraw money from the financial system down the road. They have been looking to design the expansion so the loans are less appealing in later years.


The $700 billion CMBS market has rallied in the past month on hopes TALF would be used to restart the market. Yields on triple-A CMBS bonds have fallen to about 10% from 12%, according to Trepp, which tracks commercial-property debt markets.

Bringing down the yields on existing debt is critical to spark new lending because, as long as investors can buy top-rated CMBS that yield as much as junk bonds, it would be unprofitable for banks to make new loans. That is because they would have to offer higher yields to attract investors, wiping out their profits.

How is this wrong?  Let us count the ways.

  1. The government is actively encouraging debt-backed securities in real estate
  2. This worked so well before that it now finds itself in partnership with the UAW, with Chrysler declaring Chapter 11.
  3. The credit card experiment was so successful in bringing down card rates that Obama called in the credit card companies to explain to them a) who's in charge now, and b) their rates are too high
  4. Just because you artificially lower rates by creating demand doesn't mean the investments are any better
  5. It's inflationary, because it puts money into the system that the Fed can't get out quickly
  6. They want to limit the benefit in the out-years, making the whole project less attractive to speculators investors
The last paragraph doesn't make any sense to me.  First of all, it's only true if the banks can only make money re-selling the debt.  How about, you know, collecting the interest on the original loans?  Secondly, if the investors would already rather buy CBMS debt than junk bonds, the rate should already be lower.

In fact, bringing down the yields is critical to spark new lending because the borrowers can't afford the rates the banks want to charge.

You know, kind of like how some people couldn't afford mortgages.

March 31, 2009

Lawlessness Under Cover of Law - II

Turns out if you work at a company that's taken federal money, the government's going to save you having to wait until your company derives your new pay scale from what they can pay the CIO this month.

But now, in a little-noticed move, the House Financial Services Committee, led by chairman Barney Frank, has approved a measure that would, in some key ways, go beyond the most draconian features of the original AIG bill. The new legislation, the "Pay for Performance Act of 2009," would impose government controls on the pay of all employees -- not just top executives -- of companies that have received a capital investment from the U.S. government. It would, like the tax measure, be retroactive, changing the terms of compensation agreements already in place. And it would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extraordinary power to determine the pay of thousands of employees of American companies.

...That includes regular pay, bonuses -- everything -- paid to employees of companies in whom the government has a capital stake, including those that have received funds through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The measure is not limited just to those firms that received the largest sums of money, or just to the top 25 or 50 executives of those companies. It applies to all employees of all companies involved, for as long as the government is invested. And it would not only apply going forward, but also retroactively to existing contracts and pay arrangements of institutions that have already received funds. (emphasis added -ed.)

On Backbone Radio a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Matt Dunn and I disagreed on whether or not the government should try to claw back the AIG bonuses.  I didn't think so, but could see there was an argument in using AIG as a cautionary tale to keep others from taking the bait in the first place.  Matt was wondering why the Republicans weren't making a bigger issue of this.

Turns out we were both operating under the delusion that there were still rules.

Readings of the Commerce Clause have been increasingly detached from reality for the last 70 years, beginning with a decision that selling corn within the borders of Indiana somehow constituted interstate commerce, because corn is fungible.  This was followed by a decision that a company was engaged in interstate commerce because its suppliers' suppliers moved products across state lines.

Since the government hasn't provided any exit strategies for these, ah, "investments," this amounts to a perpetual pay schedule.  And you thought that post-graduate degree was going to open the door to someone more than a GS-8.

In fact, Treasury is considering dispensing with the requirement that you have received Federal money, requiring only that you be publicly traded.  Given the open-ended nature of this commitment, it's only a matter of time before the employees of these companies demand that their competitors be held to the same standard.

After all, it's only fair.

March 29, 2009

Lawlessness Under Cover of Law

I know this piece from the New York Times is over a week old, but thus far, I haven't seen any evidence that the report has hit Barack Obama's expiration date:

Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the administration could seek to put the changes into effect through regulations rather than through legislation.

One proposal could impose greater requirements on company boards to tie executive compensation more closely to corporate performance and to take other steps to ensure that compensation was aligned with the financial interest of the company.

The new rules will cover all financial institutions, including those not now covered by any pay rules because they are not receiving federal bailout money. Officials say the rules could also be applied more broadly to publicly traded companies, which already report about some executive pay practices to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the first place, every company already tries to align management interests with those of the company. Stock options were such an attempt, on the belief that the stock price was related to the company's success. Bonuses were such an attempt, on the belief that the board would best be able to determine how well management was performing.

There is exactly zero evidence that the government has any better idea of how to do this than companies.

But the really insidious part is the idea that the federal government - through regulation - can limit executive pay at private companies traded on a private stock exchange. Why only executive pay? In fact, such limitations would inevitably trickle down to workers at all levels, as each pay limit acted as a ceiling on the level below. And since doing business requires a state license, there's no reason in principle why such limits should be restricted to publicly-traded companies.

The government is slowly edging toward determining - or threatening to determine - your salary.

What's actually going on here is not-so-subtle extortion. NPR, the day after Obama's economic presser, pointed out that Michelle Obama had said that, in effect, if you play ball with us, we'll protect you. What you're allowed to get paid would now be dependent on how well-connected you were with the administration, likely proportional to how much of that money you were willing to turn over to its now-permanent political campaigns.

We ought not to have to rely on the current administration's political whims to protect our rights to set salaries in our own companies. That's what the Constitution is for.

This is, simply, lawlessness under cover of law.

Progressively more expensive. Progressively more restrictive. Progressively more intrusive.

March 12, 2009

Bank Sale Rashomon

New Mexico based First States Bank is selling is Colorado banks, known as First Community, to South Dakota-based Great Western Bank, which itself is owned by National Australia Bank. Papers in all three states reported on the sale, but in very different ways. And each tells an important story larger than this sale.

The Las Cruces paper leads with the fact that First States is changing its mind about that TARP money, after all:

Albuquerque-based First State Bancorporation says the sale of its Colorado bank branches will improve its balance sheet enough to eliminate any need to accept federal bailout money.

First State, which does business as First Community Bank, will focus its attention on the New Mexico market, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a copyright story Thursday.


Stanford said availability and terms of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program funding is too uncertain and that First State has withdrawn the application it submitted last October.

The bankers don't like the fact that, increasingly when doing business with the Federal government, a deal really isn't a deal, after all. So rather than get caught in that particular tarp, er, trap, they decided to raise their capitalizatino to 12% from 10% by selling off some of the bad loans.

Both of the Colorado reports, from the DenPo and the Denver Business Journal, mention that it was Bob Beauprez who sold the under-performing banks to First State in the first place. Bad news for an election run this cycle, I'd think.

But neither mentions why Great Western would want to take on this burden. Leave that to the Argus-Leader:

The acquisition involves the purchase of 20 branches and will allow Great Western to expand its small business and agriculture lending, said Jeff Erickson, president and chief executive at Great Western.

"The addition of these Colorado branches is consistent with our strategic growth plans and gives us the opportunity to expand particularly in the areas of small business and agricultural banking," Erickson said.

So it would appear that rather than beg for federal money with Lilliputian-quantity strings attached, a bad sold off an underperforming ball and chain to another bank who saw opportunity there instead.

I can't believe either presidential administration meant for it to work this way, but the raging uncertainly surrounding TARP may be forcing smaller banks to actually let the market operate.

It's Great Time To Raise Taxes

So say a majority of the Metro Mayors Caucus, who want to double the portion of the local RTD sales tax to make sure that the Great White Elephant of a light rail gets built on time and massively over budget.

We can't actually tell which mayors thought that raising taxes in the worst economy since the invention of money was a good idea, and which ones thought they should wait until next year, when all the people who had money to spend were out of work, because neither of the Post's two articles, nor the Caucus's page itself tell you. It's a good thing there are professional journalists around to keep us informed.

They estimate that this glorified Disney monorail is going to suck another $2.2 billion out of the regional economy over the next 8 years. In fact, as has repeatedly been shown, both the cost and revenue forecasts are little better than ouija boards. Denver had no idea well into the 4th quarter of last year how far south its sales tax revenues were headed, and budgeters missed both the commodity price decline of the T-Rex years and the jump in construction prices over the last couple of years.

There's no guarantee that even this amount will be enough, and if mirabile dictu, the thing somehow manages to come in under the excess projected, they'll find some other way to spend the money.

Here's a better idea. Make choices. Like the rest of us.

February 22, 2009

Nice Little Bank You Got There

Initially, I was in favor of the TARP. I believed it was necessary and useful to buy up distressed assets quickly, and provide reassurance to bank shareholders and managers. I still believe that had that been done, we could have avoided what we seem to be headed for - a replay at some level of 1930-31, with all its economic and financial uncertainty, with the Fed doing the right things, and the rest of the government making the same mistakes, that dwarf the Fed's ability to respond.

Let's just say that isn't how things have turned out. Instead, we've gotten an object lesson in what happens when you go into business with the government.

What happens is that the government may hold some of the shares, but it holds all of the cards. The government receives shares and/or preferred stock for its investment - often non entirely voluntary on the part of the banks. And then it proceeds to behave as though it were the only shareholder.

Executive pay is only the most obvious example. The Mugging of Bank of America, forcing it to swallow Merrill at its original price, is another:

In other words, the feds believe that the way to calm financial markets is to force the nation's largest, and a heretofore healthy, bank to swallow toxic assets it didn't want. In return, yesterday the Treasury agreed to invest $20 billion in BofA, for which the government will receive preferred shares paying 8%. Treasury, the FDIC and the Fed will also partially insure $118 billion in troubled assets -- mostly Merrill's. In return for this downside protection, BofA will have to render unto Caesar another $4 billion of preferred stock plus warrants.

These preferreds will also pay 8%, but private shareholders are not so fortunate. The agreement limits quarterly common stock dividends to a penny a share.

Other healthy banks, state and regional banks who weren't in trouble to begin with, were, ah, encouraged to take money they probably didn't need, money that's turning out to be expensive in more ways than one:

Bankers' Bank of the West

At year-end 2008, Bankers' Bank of the West had a risk-based capital ratio of 12.4 percent, high enough to be considered very well capitalized.


The bank issued the government preferred stock that pays 5 percent interest, plus another batch of preferred stock, equal to 5 percent of the amount requested, that pays 9 percent.


"It's extremely expensive capital, but we did this as a good-faith investment for our banks," Mitchell said. "The government will do very well on this program."

So the bank is over-paying for capital it doesn't need and can't invest, setting up trouble down the line. Thanks, Uncle Sam.

First Western

"For a growth company like us to raise new equity, people are looking for 15 percent to 20 percent returns over time," Wylie said. "To get preferred stock from this program is an inexpensive form of capital."

First Western's assets nearly doubled in 2008 to about $450 million. At the same time, its capital ratio was above 10 percent, Wylie said.

"We were encouraged by the regulators to do it, so we asked our investment bankers and lawyers whether we should take it because of the possible stigma," Wylie said. "They said, 'You're already a kind of partner with government because you're highly regulated.' (emphasis added -ed.)

All banks are highly regulated. That doesn't mean they're in business with the government. This is also an admission that there aren't enough high-growth areas to invest in right now, and not for the foreseeable future, either. If you could get 15-20% in this environment, wouldn't you invest in these guys? Of course you would.

CoBiz Financial

CoBiz Financial, the parent company of Colorado Business Bank, struck a deal with the Treasury in November. For its $64.5 million, it issued preferred stock to the government that pays 5 percent for the first five years and 9 percent after. Because the bank has publicly traded stock, it also had to give the Treasury warrants to purchase 895,968 shares of CoBiz common stock at an exercise price of $10.79 per share.


By the end of the third quarter, before the provision, Colorado Business Bank still had a risk- based capital ratio above 12 percent. It was 14.5 percent at Dec. 31.

"The thought was we would take advantage of (TARP) and shore up our capital base," said CoBiz CEO Lyne Andrich.

"In this environment, more capital is always better than less. We're going to use it for growth. We believe this environment creates a lot of opportunities for acquisitions, but we didn't take the capital primarily for that purpose."

Again, if growth opportunities were out there, the bank was well-enough capitalized to lend as it was. If they aren't, they're shoving government money at questionable investments. And if acquisitions are the best way to grow, that in and of itself will provide a better home for those banks' assets.

There are a lot of reasons why bank nationalization is scary. And right now, we seem to be getting them all, even without the nationalization.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud