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Archive for the ‘Business – General’ Category

Zuckerberg

In response to the Cambridge Analytica/data-scraping crisis, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he’s open to “the right regulation.”

You should be very afraid.

Companies as big as Facebook don’t recoil from regulation. They seek it. Regulation brings inestimable advantages, chief among which is the opportunity to capture the regulator. One need not look far to find prior examples.

In the run-up to the Great Recession of 2008, the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan treated the largest banks and mortgage lenders not as entities they regulated but as clients they had to help.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be better known as the Nuclear Plant Approval and Preservation Commission.

Nuclear regulators in Japan looked forward to employment with Tokyo Electric Power Company, which had predictable effects on their reviews of plants like Fukushima. These are just a few examples, and we haven’t even touched Big Pharma.

Creation of some new commission to regulate privacy matters on social media would provide a juicy target for cooptation by Facebook’s immense wealth. No federal agency (and presumably it would be a federal, rather than a state, agency) can compete with Facebook’s immense resources, and Zuckerberg’s friends in Congress could control its funding levels year by year. As with Fukushima, regulators would view their time at the agency as a rung on the ladder to a higher-paying job with Facebook. A new statute granting this commission jurisdiction over privacy issues in social media could insulate Facebook from class actions if such matters were reserved to the new agency’s expertise.

When Facebook talks about “the right regulation,” he has in mind a well-trained regulatory spaniel that will run and fetch the frisbee no matter how far Zuckerberg flings it.

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Tax Reform

The GOP-passed tax reform law, a/k/a the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, lowered the corporate federal income tax from a maximum of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Numerous transmission utilities file tariffs with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that are based on a cost of service revenue requirement. The expense of federal corporate income tax is one of those costs of service. When a corporation’s tax rate goes down from a maximum of 35% to a flat 21%, its income tax expense goes down, and thus its cost of service revenue requirement goes down. So, one would think that when transmission utilities’ tax rates go down, as they have, that benefit might flow through (or is that trickle down) to ratepayers.

Nope.

No transmission utility filed any amendments to its tariffs to reflect the new, lowered tax rate. Maybe they thought nobody would notice it, and they could pocket that 14% difference. (“Oh boy!!!).

So on March 15, 2018, FERC opened a series of new proceedings requiring that these transmission utilities either lower their rates to reflect the tax cut, or show cause why they should not be required to do so.

Your tax dollars at work.

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invasion+of+privacy

Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards its users’ privacy interests, and its oceanically broad view of what constitutes a user’s “consent” will come back to bite Zuckerberg in the tuchus.

Meanwhile, the lesson for all users of free services on the net, whether Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or whatever, is fairly simple:

If the service is free, then YOU are the product being sold.

 

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2016-election

Well, there it is. The candidate that no one would give credence to has won the Oval Office, and in about two months he’ll take the helm on the bridge on the S.S. United States. There are lots of things that can be said about the view off the bow, but we’ll limit this post to the view from the stern. There will be no reaching for apocalyptic metaphors from Bronze Age Biblical passages.

The roots of Trump’s victory date back to the major events of the 2007-09 Great Recession. The people have rejected, decisively, the power of the Wall Street-Washington Axis. Until last night, the United States was not a democracy; it was a corporatist state, one in which the unproductive financial capitalists of Wall Street ventriloquized Washington, D.C. and ran the country by themselves, for themselves.

Just look at the wake our ship of state has made. The U.S. Gov’t. made sure that all the AIG executives got their bonuses, even though it was they who almost drove the global economy into a bottomless abyss. The megabanks all got bailed out on the taxpayers’ dime, even though they had to be bailed out because they’d spent years packaging and selling trillions of dollars of collateralized debt obligations that they themselves didn’t understand, and knew were worthless. Meanwhile, those same taxpayers who bailed out Wall Street lost their jobs, then lost their homes, and, of course, lost their health care coverage.

For decades, the Wall Street-Washington Axis preached the gospel of Rugged Individualism and The Free Market, which was all a lie. Goldman Sachs perfectly exemplifies why: when the market turned on Goldman Sachs during the Great Recession, Lloyd Blankfein, its CEO, called his good old buddy, old chum, old fellow alumni Hank Paulson, who just happened to be U.S. Treasury Secretary. And, presto change-o, Goldman Sachs became a bank holding company with access to the Federal Reserve cash window before the weekend was over.

See? It pays to have friends in high places.

The Americans who voted yesterday don’t have friends in high places, and they’re sick and tired of seeing the country run for the exclusive benefit of those who do. Washington in 2007-09 refused to countenance an economic reckoning for Wall Street because that would have affected their compatriots (and the campaign donor class) in the banks. But in economics, one link forges the next, and the reckoning that should have happened in the markets was translated to the political sphere. Think Tea Party. Think Occupy Wall Street.

And not one banker ever went to prison. In fact, the best thing that happened to Wall Street during the Great Recession, the guy who did the world’s biggest favor for the banksters, was Bernie Madoff. Bernie may be the Platonic Form of Ponzi Schemer, but he had no connection whatsoever to the Wall Street madness that brought on the Great Recession. Still, he became the face of it.

Places like Westchester County, NY, and Fairfax County, VA, came out of the crisis more prosperous than they’d ever been. But it you were not within that Charmed Circle because you lived, say, in a place the Wall Street-Washington Axis labeled “Flyover Country,” you were financially doomed. The elites were not affected by the downturn. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Wall Street-Washington Axis sold themselves on the basis of merit, they convinced the country that they knew best. “If you let us bail out the banksters, we’ll be back to the boom times in no time!” But that didn’t happen. They were wrong. Take Alan Greenspan, once viewed as the Grand Poohbah of All Economics, given to cryptic utterances that verged on the unintelligible. Turns out that he was just an old Ayn Rand fanatic, a rooster claiming credit for the dawn.

These examples could be multiplied. The mistake of Establishment politicians was to think that people would just forget about all that. The political legitimacy of the Wall Street-Washington Axis is based on alleged merit. When that merit is shown to be a complete falsehood, their political legitimacy dissolves.

More than anything else, the Great Recession and how it was handled threw a decisive advantage into the scale on the populist side. Whatever faults Trump may have, he was sharp enough to see this when everyone in the Wall Street-Washington Axis did not. Sanders saw it too, which accounted for his relatively successful campaign, which also surprised the media.

I don’t attribute Hill’s loss to the private email server business, which most people didn’t understand, much less follow. Nor to Benghazi, a word that practically became a Republican mantra. Nor is it the trust/distrust factor.

No, the real issue is that, no matter how hard she tried, Hillary could never portray herself as an “agent of change,” to use an overused term. Forget exit polls, forget college-educated or not. All that’s just trivia and beside the point. She represented continuity with the unacceptable status quo, continuity with a way of governing that the American people want smashed into atom-sized pieces and rebuilt from the ground up.

Ergo Trump.

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Guillotine

Artist’s conception of a traditional annual performance review at a French investment bank

Even Willie Mays missed a fly ball every once in a while.

Reuters reports that investment banking firm Lazard Ltd, which advised SolarCity on its $2.6 billion sale to Tesla Motors Inc, made an error in its calculations that discounted the value of Solar City by $400 million.

But the headline is worse than the actual story, so one might question whether there’s some “clickbait” sensationalism involved. There was a miscalculation according to a regulatory filing made by Solar City, but the miscalculation related to a range of minimum-maximum share prices, rather than to a definite acquisition price.

Using its discounted cash flow model, Lazard came up with an equity value range of between $14.75 and $34.00 per share for Solar City. After closing, Lazard realized that it had double-counted some of Solar City’s projected debt. After corrections to the DCF calculations, the valuation range was adjusted to $18.75 to $37.75 per share.

The $400 million figure sounds bad, and of course it is. But the purchase price the parties ultimately agreed to, which was paid in Tesla stock, came out to $25.37 per share. So regardless of the error, the price paid was still within the range originally provided by Lazard.

I’m sure there are lawyers out there who would, if asked, take the case and file against Lazard, but I would not count myself among them. Lazard and Tesla will probably dust themselves off and move on. No harm, no foul.

What’s really interesting about this case is not that an error was made, but rather how Lazard might handle its repercussions internally. Who made the error? Who checked the figures? While I wouldn’t take the suit, I would certainly place money on heads rolling across the office floors at Lazard’s headquarters.

[Attention carpet cleaning companies: send your brochures to Lazard now.]

Lazard, originally a French merchant company that grew into a major investment banking house in the New World via New Orleans, might just keep an old Rasoir National (see artist’s conception, above) in storage somewhere in a New Jersey warehouse for just this type of occasion.

When the Great Recession occurred, the Wall Street chorus was that it was nobody’s fault, they never saw it coming, and nobody could have seen it coming.

Right.

The rapidity with which Wall Street bankers transitioned from omniscient Masters of the Universe to a collection of Sargent Schultz clones was the closest mankind has yet come to attaining the speed of light. Despite precipitating the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and imposing on the U.S. taxpayer bailout costs rivaling those of a world war, no one was held accountable. Wall Street was grateful for Bernie Madoff because his Ponzi scheme story was simpler and took the spotlight off them.

But if you are the unfortunate person at Lazard on the Solar City-Tesla deal who’s tagged with responsibility for this DCF error, whether you’re a first-year analyst or a managing director, you can expect a career ending scene such as that depicted above.

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Soft-diamond Specials waiting to move out

Soft-diamond Specials waiting to move out.

Argument is scheduled for today in bankruptcy court in St. Louis over Peabody Energy’s request for approval of $16,200,000 in executive bonuses for six top executives (In re Peabody Energy Corp., Bankrtcy., E. Dist. Mo.). Peabody, one of a series of coal company insolvencies over the past few years, filed bankruptcy this past April, attributing its difficulties to declining demand overseas, particularly from China, low market prices for coal, and the loss of electricity generation demand to cheaper shale gas. These factors allegedly rendered the company unable to service its $10.1 billion debt load.

The United Mine Workers pension and benefit funds oppose the plan, saying it’s both inappropriate and unfair to pay bonuses to senior executives when employees are losing their jobs.

Peabody Energy counters that the bonuses are essential to turn the world’s largest private-sector coal company around and offer stakeholders the best possible recovery. The company claims that the bonuses are tied to its achievement of certain performance benchmarks through the end of 2017. Reuters reports that the debtor’s unsecured creditors’ committee supports the bonus plan and that the U.S. trustee has not objected.

Though unseen, the ghosts of AIG retention-bonuses-past usually attend these hearings. A debtor proposing such a plan must show that it is based on pay-for-performance and not just an executive retention program.

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Archduke Franz Andrew Sullivan, a leading Perhapsburg

Archduke Franz Andrew Sullivan, a leading Perhapsburg

Because new things are happening in the world, and in the U.S. in particular, we need to find new ways to express ourselves so that we can make our thoughts clear to others. Accordingly, The Sparkspread brings you the first in a series of useful neologisms:

Perhapsburgs

(Noun; pronounced purr-haps-bergz).

This word derives from the English adverb perhaps and the proper name of the Habsburgs (in German, “b” is usually pronounced like “p” in English), the aristocratic family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire for about 400 years, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its dissolution in the aftermath of World War I.

Perhapsburgs, in a word, think they might be kings, or at least aristocrats, and should be treated as such by the commoners.

Perhapsburgs can best be used as a descriptive noun for a clueless and out-of-touch financial, political and media elite. They remain in office or in their jobs, even as their entire world spins out of control, often, if not always, due to their mistakes. Political affiliation is not determinative of one’s character as a Perhapsburg. They can be Republicans, Democrats or Independents. A Perhapsburg knows what’s in the best interest of the common people better than the common people do. Democracy is flawed, in their view. That’s why the Rise of Trump and the Brexit have completely removed the floors from beneath their feet. We could call them “the elites,” but that’s a rather old and plain term and just doesn’t have as much oomph. Their sense of entitlement is vastly out of proportion to anything that their accomplishments can justify. Indeed, a peculiar characteristic of Perhapsburgs is that they fail upwards: often, the more massive their mistakes (e.g., Iraq War, Bank Bailout, AIG Bonuses, etc.), the more they tend to rise in the pompous hierarchy they have created for themselves.

In the United States today, the largest Perhapsburg habitat is the “Acela Corridor,” also known as the Wall Street-Washington Axis. Other cities have them as well, so don’t be surprised to find Perhapsburgs living in your town.

They know more about the Renminbi Index than they do about why many Americans have been unemployed for a year or more, or why all those stores on Main Street are covered with plywood sheets. And they don’t really care. The Perhapsburgs form an uppercrust in which everybody knows everybody else, and business and policy decisions are traded, one for the other, with only the interests of the Perhapsburgs considered. Thus, when a Perhapsburg proclaims: “This new international trade deal will be good for everybody,” the term “everybody” includes only other Perhapsburgs. The Washington Perhapsburgs exploit their political power to make themselves fabulously rich, while the Wall Street Perhapsburgs exploit their fabulous wealth (via campaign contributions, special interest PACs, etc.) to make themselves politically invincible. See? Good for everybody!

The Perhapsburgs have seen Trump, and they’ve seen Brexit, and they do not like what they see. They are threatened down to the soles of their Gucci loafers. The Perhapsburgs are very much like the German Herrenklub of aristocrats, Prussian junkers, wealthy industrialists and bankers who eventually shuffled Adolf Hitler into the Chancellorship, even though Hitler lost the 1932 election (he received about 30% of the vote, compared to Hindenburg’s 49%). Like the Perhapsburgs, the Herrenklub cast aside the results of a democratic election because they believed they could control that mustachioed little ex-corporal.

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