Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Call it crony capitalism or venture socialism, either way, it sucks

And neither have anything in common with real capitalism.   But they do have a tendency to privatize profits while socializing losses.

Examples abound, and unsurprisingly, most come in the “green” industries associated with long-time Democratic fund raisers and Obama supporters.  For instance, one with which we’re all familiar:

The most publicized instance of so-called “crony capitalism”—investing taxpayer dollars in firms tied to political donors—is the failed solar panel company Solyndra. The Fremont, Calif., firm was the first to receive a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE) in September 2009, worth more than $530 million. The funding for the loan was allocated in the controversial stimulus package passed earlier that year.

Obama bundler George Kaiser was a major stakeholder in Solyndra through his Kaiser Family Foundation, and made several trips to the White House in March 2009 to meet with senior administration officials. In July 2009, Kaiser bragged about securing face time with “all the key players in the West Wing of the White House,” as well as his “almost unique advantage” when it came to steering taxpayer funds toward his pet causes.

“There’s never been more money shoved out of the government’s door in world history, and probably never will be again, than in the last few months and in the next 18 months,” Kaiser told members of the Tulsa Rotary Club. “And our selfish parochial goal is to get as much as it for Tulsa and Oklahoma as we possibly can.”

Although things did not pan out for Solyndra—the company filed for bankruptcy in September 2011—Kaiser can expect to see a better return on his investment than American taxpayers. As part of an agreement to restructure Solyndra’s loan agreement in 2010, Obama’s DOE granted priority status to private investors like Kaiser with respect to the first $75 million recovered in the event of the firm’s bankruptcy, a move that many suspect violated federal law.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are unlikely to recover much of the money invested on their behalf.

Sound familiar (*cough* GM *cough*).  There the bankruptcy laws were tinkered with as well.  And in the case of Solyndra, that isn’t the full extent of the cronyism:

Emails uncovered by Congressional investigators reveal that Solyndra helped secure its $535 million loan guarantee with the help of Steve Spinner, another prominent Obama donor. After bundling more than $500,000 for Obama in 2008, Spinner was named to the White House transition team and later served as “chief strategic operations officer” of the DOE loan program that funded Solyndra.

Here’s the other shoe:

Spinner’s wife Allison worked for a law firm that represented Solyndra and several other green energy outfits that applied for taxpayer funding. Records show that her firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, received $2.4 million in federal funds in legal fees associated with Solyndra’s loan application.

Ethical questions?  Conflict of interest?  Bah.  And what in the world is the Federal government doing paying a law firm of an applicant for legal services in relation to their loan application?

Like I said, Solyndra is just one of many examples.  It just happens to be the best known of the bunch.  I would bet you never heard of this little bit of cronyism:

California investment guru John Doerr, for example, has personally contributed more than $170,000 to Democratic campaigns and committees since 2008, and more than $2 million over the past 20 years. His investment firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), which lists former Vice President Al Gore as a partner, has given more than $1 million to Democrats since 2005.

An early and outspoken advocate for federal investment in “green” technology, Doerr was named to the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board in 2009, where he helped craft the $787 billion stimulus package. Of the 27 companies list in KPCB’s “green-tech” portfolio, 16 received some form of taxpayer support.

And:

Another prominent Obama donor who has benefitted handsomely from the president’s policies is Steve Westly. A frequent guest at White House events and state dinners, Westley served as California co-chair and a National Finance Committee member of Obama’s 2008 campaign and currently sits on the DOE’s Energy Advisory Board.

He has bundled at least $700,000 in campaign donations for Obama since 2008 and personally given about $260,000 to Democratic campaigns and committees since 2007.

Westley’s investment firm, the Westly Group, had a financial stake in four green energy companies that received more than half a billion dollars in federal funding in 2009. The group’s website once touted the firm as being “uniquely positioned” to take advantage of the influx of taxpayer funding in green technology, and currently notes that “To win in the clean technology space, a company must navigate the halls of government.”

Westly has openly acknowledged that knowledge of federal policy is key to investing in green technology. In response to a reporter’s question about which green energy companies he likes to invest in, Westly said: “Who cares what I think. Let’s talk about ‘what does Obama like? Here’s what he likes,’ because here’s where the federal government is putting money. And let me tell you, whatever he likes, that’s what I like.”

Access and a relationship equal profit.  Nice, if you’re an insider, huh?

Here’s something Obama “liked”:

One of the companies Obama “liked” was the Exelon Corporation, a Chicago-based utility and recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funding. One of the most politically connected firms in the country, Exelon employees have made up one of President Obama’s top sources of campaign contributions throughout his career.

Exelon was Obama’s fourth-largest campaign donor when he ran for Senate in 2004, contributing more than $73,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm donated $326,000 to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. The firm has ties to several top Obama bundlers, as well as to Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod and former White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

As the Washington Free Beacon reported in June, an Exelon subsidiary was recently awarded a lucrative 20-year contract to install solar panels manufactured by federal inmates on government facilities.

The “Chicago way”. 

Finally, cronyism comes in many forms:

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has bundled at least $500,000 for Obama’s reelection campaign, and is the largest contributor to Priorities USA, the Obama-allied Super PAC.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating whether DreamWorks made illegal payments to Chinese officials in order to secure exclusive film rights in the communist nation. The New York Times reported that Katzenberg, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, were intimately involved in negotiating an agreement under which China would up its annual quota of foreign-produced films from 20 to 34 and allow studios to keep a greater percentage of box-office revenue.

DreamWorks announced a $2 billion deal with the Chinese government in February to build a production studio in Shanghai just days after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping held an extensive meeting with Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

Nice to have the leverage to engage the president and VP in your business pitch, no?  Guess 500K bundles help make that happen.

So, wondering what happened to all the money?  Still perplexed as to what the stimulus was spent on?  Bruce Bartlett knows:

“As of March 31, $452.6 billion of net stimulus funds had been disbursed in ways that show up in the national income accounts. Of this, the vast bulk, $399.7 billion, went for transfer payments. Another $9.6 billion went for subsidies and $68.1 billion for capital transfers to state and local governments. Only $37.8 billion went for consumption and $11.8 billion for investment — the only two categories of outlays that we know add to growth.”

And in the “investment” category, most of that apparently went to cronies.

That’s no way to run a government – an honest government, that is.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Economic Statistics for 19 Jul 12

The following statistics were released today on the state of the US economy:

In a week confused by seasonal adjustments, initial unemployment claims rose 34,000 in to 386,000, which is much higher than expected. But the 4-week average is actually lower, down 1,500 to a 375,500. Continuing claims rose 1,000 to 3.314 million. The 4-week average is also up 1,000 to 3.312 million.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index remained unchanged at -37.5 in the latest week.

Existing home sales fell 5.4% in June to a much weaker than expected 4.37 million annual rate, the lowest of the year. The declines are across the board in both single-family homes and condos, and in all geographical regions.

The Philadelphia Fed Survey rose to -12.9, indicating a slower rate of contraction in the district from last month.

The Conference Board’s index of leading indicators fell 0.3% in June. But the coincident index rose 0.2% in June, indicating current growth in the economy.

~
Dale Franks
Google+ Profile
Twitter Feed

NYT says Obama distraction campaign may not be working

Much to the Obama campaign and the Time’s chagrin I would suppose.  You see, the economics and politics of unemployment are personal, and most of those who find themselves in that position don’t care about Bain Capital or Romney’s tax returns.  That’s essentially the message the most recent NYT/CBS News poll reported:

Despite months of negative advertising from Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies seeking to further define Mr. Romney as out of touch with the middle class and representative of wealthy interests, the poll shows little evidence of any substantial nationwide shift in attitudes about Mr. Romney.

Personal situations trump political rhetoric, especially when the political rhetoric has no bearing on that personal situation.  Apparently, unlike the media, most of the public still realize what is important.  They aren’t caught up in the politics.  They want answers to the hard questions … the questions the Obama campaign would just as soon ignore.

Thus the distraction game.

But, apparently, that game isn’t working.

The new poll shows that the race remains essentially tied, notwithstanding all of the Washington chatter suggesting that Mr. Romney’s campaign has seemed off-kilter amid attacks on his tenure at Bain Capital and his unwillingness to release more of his tax returns. Forty-five percent say they would vote for Mr. Romney if the election were held now and 43 percent say they would vote for Mr. Obama.

When undecided voters who lean toward a particular candidate are included, Mr. Romney has 47 percent to Mr. Obama’s 46 percent.

Now that’s pretty much dead even with the challenger, despite all the negative ads and stories, having the slight edge.

Frankly, given history, it shouldn’t be this close at this point.  Even Jimmy Carter had a lead at this point in his re-election campaign.

The poll is another among many indicators that the Obama presidency is in trouble.  Take it for no more than that.  It’s a temperature check.  A snapshot. 

However, when put together with all the other temperature checks, you begin to see a campaign that isn’t at all healthy.

I can’t say I’m shedding too many tears over that.   And it also says that the voters are, at least to this point, able to push aside the distractions, focus on the key issues and hold a president accountable that desperately seeks someone (or something) to blame his failure on or an issue to distract from that failure.

Not working.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Economic Statistics for 18 Jul 12 (Updated)

The following statistics were released today on the state of the US economy:

Housing starts rebounded 6.9% in June, to a 0.760 million annual rate. Housing permits, an indicator of future activity, fell -3.7% to a 0.755 million annual rate.

The Mortgage Bankers’ Association reports mortgage applications rose 16.9% last week, with purchases down -0.1%, and re-finance applications up 22.0%.

Update: The Fed’s Beige Book report on the economy, while still troubling, was a bit more optimistic than expected. Retail sales, housing, loan demand, and inflation were moderately positive. Manufacturing is still weak, however. Overall, though, the report indicates a weakening recovery and sluggish economy. The strength in retail sales also is at odds with the official reporting, which indicates substantially more weakness than the Beige Book reports.

~
Dale Franks
Google+ Profile
Twitter Feed

The most underreported energy related story?

Did most of you know about this?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) June energy report says that energy-related carbon dioxide fell to 5,473 million metric tons (MMT) in 2011.

That’s down from a high of 6,020 MMT in 2007, and only a little above 1995′s level of 5,314 MMT.

Better yet, emissions in the first quarter of 2012 fell at an even faster rate — down 7.5% from the first quarter of 2011 and 8.5% from the same time in 2010. If the rest of 2012 follows its first-quarter trend, we may see total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions drop to early-1990s levels.

Wow.  Victory for the enviro crowd, yes?  Regulation has succeeded, right?  The government has turned the tide?

Nope.  In fact it has nothing to do with the enviro crowd, government or regulation.

Two dirty words: Hydraulic fracking.  Two more for good measure: Natural gas.  And the dirtiest word of all: Markets.

Those three have combined, via a price point that has stimulated demand and made the conversion of coal plants economical to drive down emissions as they produce electricity more cheaply and efficiently.  This trend began in 2007 and is now having a real effect:

Increasingly, power plants are turning to natural gas because it has become abundant, and therefore cheap. And though technology is improving our ability to reduce emissions from coal usage, natural gas is still a much cleaner source.

Natural gas, given the extensive finds and the exploitation, is much cheaper than coal now.  In fact:

Indeed, natural gas has just passed an important milestone. As noted by John Hanger, energy expert and former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: "As of April, gas tied coal at 32% of the electric power generation market, nearly ending coal’s 100-year reign on top of electricity markets."

That’s how it works in markets, or is supposed too.  The fact that emissions are down is an actual side benefit of the process.  And it is a process that has managed to work despite government and environmental groups like the Sierra Club’s interference or attempted interference in the process (the Sierra Club has declared war on natural gas and fracking after accepting millions in previous years from the natural gas industry). 

It is a part of the creative destruction of the capitalist process.  Coal will still have its uses, but just as it was replaced as a primary fuel for heating homes last century, it is now being replaced as a primary fuel for generating electricity for the same reason – there is a cheaper and more efficient fuel (which also happens to have fewer emissions) that is easier to produce and deliver than coal. 

At some point coal producers will either have to reinvent themselves or find something else to do.  And on the other side, opportunities will expand within the natural gas industry as more and more demand builds.

But shhhhh.  Don’t want anyone knowing this all happened because of markets.  Why that would hurt the argument that it requires government intrusion, regulation and the pressure of environmental groups to make things like this happen.

Can’t have that.

Forward.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Economic Statistics for 17 Jul 12

The following statistics were released today on the state of the US economy:

The consumer price index was unchanged for June, and up 1.7% from last year. The core CPI rose 0.2%, and is up 2.2% from last year.

The Housing Market Index jumped the most in 10 years, rising a huge 6 points to 35, its highest level since March 2007. This has analysts hoping that the housing market has turned the corner.

Industrial production rose 0.4% in June, but capacity utilization at the nation’s factories fell slightly to 78.9%. Manufacturing output rose 0.7% for the month.

Net inflow of long-term securities rose $55.0 billion in May, up from April’s revised $27.2 billion. Foreign official institutions were the heaviest buyers of US securities in the month.

In weekly retail sales, Redbook shows a very disappointing 1.7% year-on-year sales increase, one of the lowest since April 2011. ICSC-Goldman Store Sales showed no increase from last week, and the year-on-year increase was 2.6%, which, while still on trend, is moving south.

~
Dale Franks
Google+ Profile
Twitter Feed

Why no hiring? Taxes and health care, that’s why

As I’ve mentioned many times, the engine of America is small business.  Those businesses provide jobs to 85% of Americans.  And according to the US Chamber of Commerce, they’re not going to be doing much if any hiring in the near future:

Small business owners’ concerns about the future—particularly on health care and taxes-—are impacting their hiring, according to the U.S. Chamber’s fifth quarterly small business survey released today.

Only one in five small businesses (20%) expect to add employees in 2013, according to the poll of 1,225 small business owners, conducted by Harris Interactive. The majority of small businesses say they are likely to keep the same number of employees over the next year – meaning there is likely to be little change in overall unemployment figures.

Concerns about health care and taxes (both brought to you by Barack Obama) are causing caution among small businesses and that’s because they perceive an “unsettled” business climate.  Consequently there’s no incentive for them to change the status quo.    In fact, they obviously believe there is some safety in the status quo (see the survey to see how they feel about their businesses locally) .

As we’ve mentioned repeatedly, government policy does have an effect on the economy.  It can be an enabler that helps create incentives for businesses to expand and hire or it can be a disabler, doing precisely what it is doing now to unsettle the business climate, create disincentives for expansion or hiring and have small businesses go into a defensive posture.

It doesn’t get more defensive than now.

More from the Chamber survey:

  • 78% want government to get out of the way.
  • 90% are concerned about the impending fiscal cliff and are worried that Congress will fail to take action to prevent it.
  • Nearly 60% say that expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax rates and other business provisions, coupled with sequestration, will directly impact their business’ growth.

As you might imagine the road map to a better business climate is not hard to follow.  There’s just no desire by the class warriors to do that. 

Instead of doing the hard work of creating a business climate that will provide small business incentives to expand and hire, they’d rather tax them while demonizing them as the evil rich and talking about “fair shares” to 50% of the country that pay’s no – zero- income tax.

If this doesn’t paint the picture of what is wrong with the policies of this administration, I’m not sure what will.  This is Econ 101 stuff.  And apparently it is like a foreign language to this administration.

The golden goose is on life support, and the administration is about to pull the plug.

But let’s talk about Bain Capital, shall we?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

GDP growth: How bad is it?

Bad.

Real bad according to J.P. Morgan:

This morning we lowered our tracking of Q2 GDP growth from 1.7% to 1.4%. For some time now we have noted that our Q3 GDP call — which was already below consensus at 2.0% — had risks that were skewed to the downside.

After the latest round of data we have decided to lower our projection for Q3 to 1.5%. The strength in inventories reported this morning suggests that businesses may have got caught offsides when final demand weakened this past spring. That inventory build should weigh on production growth in the third quarter as already-cautious businesses seek to work down stockpiles. Added to this downside, the weakness in June real consumer spending will make the arithmetic for Q3 consumption a little more challenging.

Finally, the decline in gasoline prices — which had been seen as an important support to the economy — has partly reversed itself in recent weeks, thereby lessening the impetus to growth from that source. For 2012 as a whole, we are now looking for growth of around 1.7% on a Q4/Q4 basis, about the same as last year and 0.2%-point below our tracking last week. On a year-ago basis real GDP has been growing at a below-trend pace since early last year. If our forecast is anywhere near correct, that pattern will persist for at least another year, and perhaps even longer.

To reiterate:

Q2 – 1.4% growth.

Q3 – 1.5% growth

Q4 – 1.7% growth

For the year, under 2.0%.

The word “pitiful” doesn’t even begin to connote the severity of this forecast.  And note the bottom line of the JP Morgan forecast: “If our forecast is anywhere near correct, that pattern will persist for at least another year, and perhaps even longer.”

And here we are doing the usual – talking about distractions like Bain Capital.

Amazing.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

ICYMI: Companies planning on less hiring in near future

According a report by Reuters, much of it is related to the looming crisis in Europe:

Only 23 percent of the firms polled in June plan to add to staff in the next six months, the National Association for Business Economics said on Monday.

NABE’s prior survey, conducted in late March and early April, had shown 39 percent of companies planning to add workers.

The point, of course, is now is certainly not the time, with unemployment at 8.2%, to give business another reason to delay hiring, right?  That would seem, to most, to be a reasonable point.  While the European problem unfolds and comes to some sort of resolution, you’d think government would be attempting to encourage and enable domestic businesses to do some hiring anyway, right?

Instead, as demonstrated in the story below, you have a president (and a party) who seem dedicated to killing whatever possibility there is for such hiring in the bud by calling for higher taxes on the “rich”.

Of course they count on the bulk of the public being ignorant of what comprises the “rich” that the administration wants taxed (small business which produces 85% of the jobs in the US) and certainly, to some extent, they’ve been successful in that endeavor. 

Many will tell you that there’s really not much government can do economically.  That they get blamed or praised when it goes south or does well, but in fact that’s more political tradition than reality.

I disagree.  Economic policy can have a profound effect on the economy.  A policy that encourages and enables business will have a net positive effect economically.  One that discourages or unsettles the business climate (increased regulation, increased taxation, etc.) will have the opposite effect.

Right now we have an example of the latter.   The 8.2% unemployment rate we now endure isn’t a result of the “European crisis”, it is the result of an unsettled and hostile domestic business climate, much of it created by the current administration’s policies.  Europe’s woes will only add to that.  Instead of doing everything they can domestically to encourage expansion and hiring, this administration has decided to again lobby for taxing the job creators at an even higher level.

Of course be prepared for the ready excuse that the crisis in Europe presents.  Blaming Bush doesn’t work as well now as it did 4 years ago.  ATMs and tsunamis won’t work either.  But President “It’s the Other Guy’s Fault” will try very hard to shift the blame of any economic downturn in the next few months across the Atlantic.

But remember – we are at 8.2% now.  And that has much more to do with this President’s policies than anything that has happened in Europe.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Economic Statistics for 16 Jul 12

The following statistics were released today on the state of the US economy:

Retail sales declined for the third month in a row, falling a greater-than-expected -0.5% in June. Less autos, sales fell -0.4%; less gas and autos, sales fell -0.2%. Retail sales on a year-ago basis were up 3.8%.

In another unwelcome sign for the economy, Business inventories in May rose 0.3%, while sales fell 0.1% for the second month in a row. This raised the stock-to-sales ratio to 1.27. That’s the highest level since May 2011.

The Empire State Mfg Survey rose more than 5 points to 7.39, but new orders, an indication of future activity, fell to -2.69. Unfilled orders are also contracting, at a very steep -13.58.

~
Dale Franks
Google+ Profile
Twitter Feed

Buy Dale’s Book!