UA-43475823-1

The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Retail Stores Are Closing Fast

The Daily Escape:

Cougar with Radio Collar – Griffith Park, Los Angeles, via Nature Photography

Retailers are closing thousands of stores and going bankrupt at a rate not seen since the Great Recession, and tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs as a result. Retailers blame Amazon and other online vendors, and e-commerce sales are booming. While some brick-and-mortar retailers are doing well, many are losing money. The Atlantic reports that:

Overall retail employment has fallen every month this year. Department stores, including Macy’s and JC Penney, have shed nearly 100,000 jobs since October—more than the total number of coal miners or steel workers currently employed in the US.

Wolf Richter has the following chart showing the nature of the problem for retail stores:

But the e-commerce industry won’t rescue out-of-work retail employees. Most warehouses are regional, and located far from residential areas, which means they might not be within a reasonable commuting distance for displaced workers. By contrast, retail stores are typically located near residential centers. E-commerce warehouses also employ fewer people than retail stores, since the warehouses are increasingly automated.

Yves Smith offers this idea: (parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

One of the reason so many real world retailers are hitting the wall so hard is that private equity leverage and asset stripping made them particularly vulnerable. While the losses to online retailers would have forced some downsizing regardless, the fact that so many are making desperate moves in parallel is in large measure due to the fact that…their private equity (PE) overlords have made them fragile.

That’s a new angle for evaluating Amazon’s performance: it’s not that retailers are closing because Amazon is expanding, but Amazon is expanding because retailers are closing. Jeff Bezos should be thanking the PE firms for looting the retail industry.

The Federal Reserve’s low interest rates also made it easier for Private Equity funds to load these retailers up with debt. Management could borrow more money than necessary, pay themselves cash bonuses, and claim “interest rates are low; making payments will be easy“.

They would even show you the math. Of course, that math assumed that store sales would continue climbing in the future. If sales fell, high debt payments could quickly become an outsized burden.

The Private Equity all-stars often follow a particular deal model. After purchasing the retail company, the PE firm sells the real estate owned by the retail company to another entity (owned by the PE fund). Then the retail company makes lease payments to its new landlord. This splitting of the assets into an operating company and a property company allows the PE fund manager to make a cash distribution to its investors early on, producing a quick return on the deal. Later, the property company will be sold.

The problem with this approach is that businesses that choose to own their real estate are typically seasonal businesses, as all retailers are. Or they are low margin businesses particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, like restaurants. Owning their property reduced their fixed costs, making them better able to ride out bad times.

To make this picture worse, the PE firms often “sell” the real estate to itself at an inflated price, which justifies saddling the operating business with high lease payments, making the financial risk in the operating company even higher. Of course, those high rents make the property company look more valuable to prospective investors, who may fail to look close enough at the retailer who is paying the rents.

Companies with little debt generally can survive lower sales. They can engage in cost-cutting, maybe encourage some employees to retire early, etc. It’s easier to survive if they own their own property. But when you’ve got a lot of debt, and servicing that debt requires that sales continue to rise quarter after quarter without fail, then things become a LOT more fragile.

Trump claims he’s created 500,000 new jobs in his first 100 days. Notice that he doesn’t say what these jobs are, or where they were created. Certainly they weren’t in Retail. Or Coal. Or Steel. Those jobs aren’t coming back.

Here is Jonathan Richman with his 1990 song “Corner Store” which laments what towns have lost to the malls:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

Well, I walked past just yesterday
And I couldn’t bear that new mall no more
I can’t expect you all to see it my way
But you may not know what was there before
And I want them to put back my old corner store.

Facebooklinkedinrss

United Airlines: Try Doing The Right Thing

The Daily Escape:

Kravica waterfall in Bosnia Herzegovina -photo by Vedrana Tafra

Wrongo needs to start by saying that he has nearly 800,000 lifetime air miles on United Airlines (UAL) and, after the forcible removal of a paying passenger, he will try to avoid flying them again.

You know the story: United Express in Chicago loads passengers on a plane heading to Louisville. Then four employees arrive, needing seats. United was unwilling to offer enough compensation to induce passengers to give up their seats, and ordered four passengers off of the aircraft. Three left, but one refused, saying he had to be in Louisville in the morning.

United officials called the Department of Chicago Aviation, (part of the City of Chicago), the type of government agency that you never even knew existed, to remove him. Officers grabbed his arms, dragged him screaming across the armrests and along the floor and off of the aircraft, apparently injuring him in the process.

Unusual situations like this test organizations and their leadership. The key information here is that UAL wanted to make space to carry their own staff. The flight was not “overbooked”, UAL wanted to take back seats of a few paying passengers to accommodate their own staff. Apparently, UAL had bungled its own logistics, and then looked to its paying customers to solve the problem.

Poor customer service like this exists because of corporate culture, and because the company rarely has to pay a price for it.

In Wrongo’s past, he managed 1000 employees who had technical support and/or customer service contact with the public. We had a mantra: Know when to Do The Thing Right, and know when to Do The Right Thing. 95% of the time, the job is to follow established procedures, to guide the customer to a pre-established solution that had been vetted, one that was company policy.

Our staff’s job was to “do the thing right” in those cases, to follow our processes.

5% (or less) of the time, our people would see something novel, outside the scope of established policy. Something that called for reaching an equitable solution that wasn’t in any manual.

Then, our employees needed to “do the right thing”.

These aren’t difficult concepts to instill, they are entirely consistent with most people’s personal experience, and usually with their views about fairness.

United should try empowering people to do the right thing, when going by the book fails the customer. Whatever it might have cost to compensate volunteers, it would have been far cheaper than what UAL will now pay to this passenger.

This also illustrates how America is changing: Large corporations are willing to use the police to enforce their policies. The passenger’s choice was to comply with police demands, or face physical intimidation, or worse. And Chicago’s sub-contracted police were too eager to jump into the fray.

We should ask: Did the injured passenger break any law by refusing to give up his seat? If that’s the case, the plane was filled with lawbreakers. If not, why was an element of the Chicago police doing UAL’s dirty work?

The Seventh Amendment of the Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civil cases in the federal courts:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved

The $20 amount is trivial in today’s economy. But that idea of a jury trial has been killed by corporatist judges on the Supreme Court, and other courts, and has been replaced the company’s terms of service. When you agree, it takes away most of your rights — disputes are resolved through arbitration that the corporation almost always wins. In this case, UAL’s terms of service gives them almost unlimited authority when dealing with its passengers, including a rule regarding “refusal of transport” (Rule 21) and “denial of boarding compensation” (Rule 25).

But that doesn’t justify bad corporate behavior. Or violence.

But, thanks to Congress’s bipartisan policy of ignoring anti-trust laws for several decades, just four firms now control the vast majority of domestic flights, and they don’t really compete with one another. This is from the DOT’s report on airline competition:

Less competition means you don’t have to worry as much about annoying people with delays or overbooked flights. It also means you can make a lot more money. There’s less pressure to cut ticket prices — even when the price of oil, an airline’s biggest cost, is plummeting — and it’s easier to introduce ever-more obnoxious fees and charges.

UAL isn’t worried about you sharing a video of a passenger being dragged off their plane, because you have no real choice when you fly from certain cities.

Ultimately, the responsibility to blunt this trend is ours. Replace Citizens United. Remove corporatist judges. Keep our police on a short leash.

Don’t just upload a video, organize your neighbors and vote!

Facebooklinkedinrss

Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Why Trump Doesn’t Talk About Jobs Anymore

The Daily Escape:

(Bamboo after snowfall in January, near Kyoto. Photo by Hiroki Kondo)

During the 2016 presidential race, Trump campaigned on populist themes. Now that he is in office, it is clear that his policies will be neither populist nor popular, but strictly pro-business. The first clue was his choice of Cabinet members. Despite promising to “drain the swamp”, nobody realized that he could do that by making lobbyists pointless, as their clients are in charge of the government: The CEO of Exxon is head of foreign policy, a former Goldman Sachs partner heads Treasury, the daughter of a ship owner heads Transportation, a corporate raider is at Commerce, and so it goes.

Two months into his presidency, it is clear that the Trump economic policy is pro-business, not pro-jobs, or pro-little guy. If you still have doubt, the Republicans just rolled back a series of Obama-era worker safety regulations. The Senate voted 49-48 to kill a rule that required federal contractors to disclose and correct serious safety violations.

It’s clear that industry CEOs can’t believe their good luck, despite having opposed Trump at every step before the election. He’s only asking them for some vague promises to add new American jobs in return. Acting normal when they are interviewed after leaving a Trump meeting must be the hardest part of their day.

Trump hardly mentions jobs anymore, because he knows there aren’t many. His bogey man of weak domestic manufacturing needs to be addressed: China’s total exports in 2015 were $2.3 Trillion. The US total exports in 2015 were $1.5 Trillion, second in the world.

And the total value of US manufacturing in 2015 was $6.2 Trillion and we are doing it with fewer people than ever before. Today, US factories produce twice as much stuff as they did in 1984, but with one-third fewer workers.

Trump’s carrot and stick approach with US companies is theater. He is now industry’s number one value creator: When he commended Ford for deciding not to build a new plant in Mexico, the price of its shares rose 4.5%.

Softbank shares went up 6.2% after being praised by Trump for investing $50 billion in the US. Softbank’s motive was simple: Softbank owns Sprint, who would like to merge with T-Mobile. The authority to permit this merger lies with the new head of the FTC, yet to be named by Trump. Trump’s positive tweets feed Softbank’s hopes that the merger will be approved.

The Trump presidency has begun in the worst possible way for all who believed he would be an activist in new jobs creation for the lightly skilled, the people who overwhelmingly helped to elect him.

If the opposition wants to take Trump down, they should stop talking about Russia, and focus on Trump’s record with jobs creation. He made big promises – a job for everyone. It will be a long time (if ever) before a significant number of new manufacturing jobs materialize. This is true because Trump’s plan is to cut the fat out of government, cutting so many jobs that he might never add enough to make up for those he eliminates.

His plan is to use the freed-up funds to do something splashy with infrastructure. This would allow him to boast significant job creation, while downplaying the lost jobs in government. If Trump can figure out how to take unemployed, 50+ year old white males living in small town West Virginia, and make them productive, employed workers, then he’s a genius.

Capitalism hasn’t changed. A subset of oligarchs led by Trump have seized control of the US government. They are “nationalists”. Another subset, the “globalists” lost control of the state.

OTOH, the American people would have lost regardless of who won.

This is being repeated around the industrialized world, from Brexit, to Marine Le Pen’s right-wing challenge in France, to far right challenges to Angela Merkel in Germany.

The chaos described in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is engulfing the world.

In honor of those who still believe that Trumpy will solve the jobs equation, here is Alan Jackson with “Hard Hat and a Hammer”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics:

Lace-up boots and faded jeans
A homemade sandwich, and a half a jug of tea
Average Joe, average pay
Same ol’ end, same ol’ day

Facebooklinkedinrss

Congress Greases the Skids for Exxon

(See below for the Daily Escape)

While America’s focus has been on the Orange Overlord’s blizzard of executive orders, and his public love-making with Putin, we were distracted from some of the actions by the GOP’s Congressional worms who are intent on chewing through our regulatory protections.

Did you feel burdened by a Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule requiring that American corporations doing business overseas reveal how much money they’re spending in foreign countries? This is called the Resource Extraction Rule, and apparently, it has been a terrible burden for Exxon and other oil firms.

VOX reported that, on the same day the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the House voted to kill a transparency rule for oil companies that Tillerson once lobbied against while CEO of Exxon Mobil. Now it’s on to the Senate and the Orange Leader for action:

Using the little-known Congressional Review Act, the House GOP voted on Wednesday to kill an Obama-era regulation that would require publicly traded oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose any payments that they made to foreign governments, including taxes and royalties.

The Resource Extraction Rule is part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Back then, senators from both parties included a provision requiring greater disclosure from mining and drilling companies’ activities abroad. The hope was to cut down on corruption in resource-rich developing countries by increasing transparency.

Over the past six years, the SEC tried to craft a rule that would give the legislation teeth. But the SEC’s first attempt at regulation was struck down by the courts in 2012. The rule didn’t actually get finished until June 27, 2016. As Charlie Pierce says: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

In other countries, resource extraction is a polite way of describing corruption and bribery on a grand scale, and it’s also a dead serious matter for local activists who are trying to take on international corporations and their native plunderers in local government.

Remember the Congressional Review Act (CRA). It is the mechanism the GOP will use to undo much of what the Obama administration did in the areas of corporate responsibility and environmental justice.

At its core, the CRA states that any “recent” regulation (the Act’s definition of recent means it only applies to those passed by the Obama administration after June, 2016) can be repealed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Any repeal vote taken by the Senate cannot be filibustered, and the list includes more than 50 Obama-era regulations.

So far, the Stream Protection rule that restricted coal companies from dumping debris and waste into nearby waterways has been revoked, along with the Social Security gun rule that prevented mentally impaired persons from buying guns.

Now, they’ve gutted the Resource Extraction rule.

Under the CRA, the SEC is barred from crafting a new rule that has “substantially the same form” as the repealed regulation. So, Congress has thrown a rose to the oil and gas and mining industries that will be difficult to reverse.

Despite GOP concerns, similar rules are in place in the European Union. Reporting by the United Kingdom, France, Norway and Canada shows $150 billion in payments to governments in more than 100 countries.

Sounds like something citizens should know about.

The GOP’s argument is that American oil and gas companies need to make these under-the-table payments, in order to compete in third world countries.

This is America under the GOP: We can’t afford to provide the world’s best education to our kids. We can’t afford to take care of our elderly, but we absolutely must have policies that allow Exxon and friends to bribe foreign governments.

 

The Daily Escape: The National Library of China, in Beijing’s educational district.

(Image by Tian-yu Xiong for the National Geographic)

Facebooklinkedinrss

New FCC Chair Guts Net Neutrality

Today we premiere a new feature, the “Daily Escape”, a photo that hopefully will take you away from all that is wrong just now. Some photos will be by Wrongo, but most will be from professionals. They will not have any particular relevance to the topic of the day. They are here to help you pause for a moment, and go to a different place.

Today’s Daily Escape: George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University

Now, on to what’s wrong…

The principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows to consumers is called “net neutrality”. Net neutrality looks all but dead under Trump’s new head of the FCC. From the NYT:

In his first days as President Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai has aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency.

Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to open the cable box market to competition.

Before he became FCC Chair, Pai served as an FCC commissioner, one of the Republican minority under the Obama administration. In that role, he opposed reclassifying broadband providers as common carriers, which allows the agency to regulate them like utility companies, a necessary step if the FCC was to enforce net neutrality rules. That reclassification might be next to go.

Today consumers can pay Internet service providers for a higher-speed Internet connection, but regardless of the download speed they choose, under new Chair Pai’s plan, they might get some content faster, depending on how much their content provider has paid the service provider.

Tim Wu at the New Yorker offered some insight: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

With broadband, there is no such thing as accelerating some traffic without degrading other traffic. We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. They’ll be behind in the queue, watching as companies that can pay tolls to the cable companies’ speed ahead

The new rule gives broadband providers what they’ve wanted for about a decade: the right to speed up some traffic at the expense of others. The motivation is not complicated. The broadband carriers want to make more money for doing what they already do. Never mind that American carriers already charge some of the world’s highest prices for a service that costs less than $5/month to provide.

In the large-scale server market, Internet traffic is nearly free. In that market, a terabyte of data costs about $1/month. That’s 1000 gigabytes/month, if you are not familiar with usage of that size.  The home user pays 10x to as much as 1000x more than that per month; $100 for 100 gigabytes of traffic is not uncommon. A recent offer from AT&T for 45 M/bit internet is $30/month, which includes 1TB of data/mo. So 1000 gigabytes costs $30, or $1 per 33 gigabytes, but, if you exceed ATT’s limit, the price goes up dramatically: You would have to pay $10 per each additional 50 GB.

No volume discount for you, but Netflix will get one.

Requiring access fees for faster service will be good for Netflix, since it won’t have to worry as much about competitive traffic, particularly from small companies. The ultimate result will be to lock in the current set of incumbents who control the internet, ushering in the era of big, fat, (and possibly) inefficient monopolies.

Republicans and big corporations like to say that they are against regulation because the free market should rule. That economic efficiency brings lower prices.

It is always a lie.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Ready For The Coming Constitutional Convention?

According to Article V of the US Constitution, the states can convene a Constitutional convention without any action by the federal government if two-thirds (34) of them pass a resolution in favor of the convention. Right-wing organizations have been working for decades to convince enough state legislatures to call for such a convention, with the aim of limiting the powers of the federal government.

Now, Republicans are close to that goal.

Resolutions for a Constitutional convention have already passed in 28 states. And after November’s elections, Republicans control both legislative chambers in 32 states, while also dominating Nebraska’s uni-cameral legislature, giving them 33. This means that they are just one state shy of the 34 needed to propose an Article V convention. And Republicans now hold 34 governorships.

OTOH, Nevada’s House and Senate flipped to the Democrats, offering progressives an opportunity to rescind the convention resolution they passed previously.

Well done Democrats! Not only will the GOP control the Supreme Court for the next generation, they are on the cusp of rewriting the Constitution to make the Federal government a weak shadow of what it was under FDR and LBJ.

Say goodbye to the liberal democracy you say you cherish. Neither the President nor the Supreme Court have any say in this if 34 states agree to hold a Constitutional convention.

Last September, Convention of States a group dedicated to creating a Constitutional convention, convened a simulated Constitutional convention. At this meeting 137 state legislators representing all 50 states attended a “dry run,” in Williamsburg, Va. It produced drafts of six different proposed amendments:

  • A balanced budget amendment that mandates a Congressional supermajority in order to increase the national debt
  • Congressional term limits
  • Abolishing the federal income tax; while requiring a supermajority for other federal taxes
  • Curtail federal legislative and executive jurisdiction by reining in the commerce clause
  • Allow three-fifths of the states to nullify a federal law
  • Allow congressional override of regulations

The balanced budget amendment has been a priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for decades. ALEC, whose funders include many very large US companies, has poured huge sums of money into state legislative races, and provides sample legislation to its members.

According to In These Times, at ALEC’s July 2016 annual meeting, the Constitutional convention was made a top priority. ALEC has adopted model rules for an Article V convention and offers its members model language for a resolution to call for a convention. After focusing on state legislatures for decades, they now have tight relationships with many states across the country.

Since 2000, ALEC did a brilliant job of using the Congressional mid-term elections and state elections as a referendum on the Obama administration. And since Obama came to office, Democrats have lost control of 958 state legislative seats.

If a convention gets triggered, state legislators from across the country will convene to propose amendments, which then need to be ratified by three-fourths (38) of the states to become part of the Constitution. There are concerns however, even within the right-wing that a Constitutional convention could become a runaway train, attempting to go way beyond its stated goals, or by creating more division in an already divided country.

The best argument against a Constitutional convention is that any benefit gained by fixing glitches in our system could easily be outweighed by the risk of letting the crazies have a shot at wrecking the whole thing.

But no need to worry about that particular risk. The crazies are already here.

Republicans love the Constitution so much that they just nominated as a Supreme Court Justice a strict constructionist who will decide cases in accordance with the Constitution’s original intent. The GOP says they cannot abide tampering with that.

And yet, they are working to change it.

If you think we should only want a Constitutional convention when the country reaches a crisis point, welcome to our new world:

There are two possible outcomes at this point. Either the crazies succeed and consolidate power on top of the wreckage of our current system, or they will falter and fail.

Sorry Democrats, you just can’t sit back and count on the latter.

Facebooklinkedinrss

All Aboard The Bailout Train

In February 2014, Wrongo alerted that hedge funds and other Wall Street firms had been buying up single family homes, many of which had been foreclosed on during the housing crisis between 2007 and 2010:

Most rental houses in the US are owned by individuals…but a new breed has emerged: Wall Street-backed investment companies with billions of dollars at their disposal. In just the last two years, large investors have bought as many as 200,000 single-family houses and are now renting them out.

Tim G, a Wrongologist reader who is an expert in mortgage finance, commented at the time that he hoped that:

Fitch/Moody’s and any other rating agencies learned their lesson from 2007, and won’t (as you suggested) just slap AAA ratings on these. By definition these rental properties carry much more risk, since if they are vacant for any period, the incentive to keep paying drops quickly.

Well, slap they did. You know the drill from 2008; the new game was just like the old game: The new bundled securities were AAA rated by the same rating agencies. The bonds were sold to those seeking high yield without commensurately high risk.

Now we have a new wrinkle. Wolf Richter is reporting that Invitation Homes (owned by private equity giant, Blackstone) today owns 48,431 single-family homes. This makes Invitation Homes the largest landlord of single-family homes in the US. They just obtained government guarantees for $1 billion in rental-home mortgage backed securities. From Richter:

The disclosure came in an amended S-11 filing with the SEC on Monday in preparation for Invitation Homes’ IPO. Invitation Homes bought these properties out of foreclosure and turned them into rental properties, concentrated in 12 urban areas. The IPO filing lists $9.7 billion in single-family properties and $7.7 billion in debt.

The plan is to have a successful IPO, and then refinance some of the debt with the sale of $1 billion of government-guaranteed rental-home mortgage-backed securities.

Fannie Mae, a government-sponsored entity (GSE) that was bailed out, and then taken over by the US government during the 2008 financial crisis, is providing the guarantee of bond principal and interest, and the offering documents call them “Guaranteed Certificates”. More from Wolf: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

This is the first time ever that a government-sponsored enterprise has guaranteed single-family rental-home mortgage-backed securities, issued by a huge corporate landlord. It’s an essential step forward in financializing rents: taxpayer backing for funding the biggest landlords.

These government guarantees allow Invitation Homes to pay lower interest rates. The bottom line is that Invitation will have cheap financing for future home purchases, and thus lower costs and greater profits.

It’s a sweet deal: low-cost funding made possible by government guarantees, is a special gift that was agreed to by the Obama administration. Other corporate landlords will want to follow in Blackstone’s footsteps, and it is difficult to see how Fannie Mae will choose not to guarantee the other firms.

Bloomberg reported on a Dodd-Frank mandated stress test conducted by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. It showed that during the next severe economic downturn, Fannie Mae and its sister Freddie Mac would need between $49 billion and $126 billion in taxpayer bailout money.

Socialize the losses, Part Infinity.

The Blackstone deal looks like new policy: The government subsidizes the largest landlords, helping increase their profits from renting out the same single-family homes that individual homeowners lost to the same financial thugs during the housing foreclosure crisis. The mission of Fannie Mae is to promote home ownership, not to give real estate entrepreneurs a way to limit their losses.

This guarantee was worked out under Obama’s watch, but Blackstone did not make it public until it updated its filing with the SEC this week. The timing is curious. The public disclosure comes after the Trump team is in charge, meaning Obama wouldn’t face criticism, and the Trump Administration will certainly let the deal stand.

This is worse than the government’s gift of TARP to Wall Street. That at least had optics that said it protected Main Street. But, this securitized mortgage market doesn’t involve Main Street, and the market isn’t even in big trouble.

This isn’t a bailout. It’s a grift. The Kleptocracy is now more entrenched than in 2008.

How ironic. Big business gets a sweetheart government deal, while the GOP moves to cut social programs.

Will this add new jobs to the Trump economy?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Is It Legitimate To Say Trump’s Not Legitimate?

“As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew”Lincoln

Everybody’s been talking about the dust up between Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Donald Trump. Lewis’s statement that Trump is not a legitimate president obviously hit our Overlord-elect in a soft, squishy spot, and he immediately lashed out at Lewis.

Advocates from both sides rushed to defend their guy’s actions. Lots of people are saying “not my president”, which doesn’t necessarily imply illegitimacy as much as disapproval, but many like the sound of saying Trump is illegitimate:

  • There are misguided people who sincerely think that Trump wasn’t elected in a fair election, that votes were somehow stolen from Hillary Clinton, despite the lack of evidence to support that contention.
  • There are others who think the result was unfairly influenced by outside forces ranging from the FBI here at home, to foreign governments, principally Russia. If you believe that FBI Director Comey’s actions were illegitimate, or that Russia intervened, you could conclude that the result may be illegitimate.

But, most think the election results reflect what happened in the voting booth; that the outcome was how people voted, and Trump won according to the rules.

Charles Blow in the NYT defined two types of legitimacy: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

It is true that Donald Trump is, by all measures of the law, the legitimate president-elect and will legitimately be inaugurated our 45th president on Friday…There simply is no constitutional or statutory mechanism to nullify the installation of an elected president based on election influencing, even by a hostile state actor. The framers of the Constitution had no way of anticipating digital warfare being used in a propaganda attack. The Constitution was ratified before electric lights were invented.

But there is another way of considering legitimacy, another test that his election doesn’t meet: That is when legitimacy is defined as “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.”

Here, [John] Lewis and his fellow believers are on solid footing.

Trump overreacted to Lewis, saying that John Lewis’s Congressional district is poverty stricken, and all Lewis does is talk, Trump is simply wrong on the facts. Lewis’s district includes a combination of prosperous and less prosperous bits of Atlanta. From Atrios:

But basically this is Trump’s view that all black people live in hellholes and all urban areas not within 15 feet of his golden palace in the sky are hellholes…Which is fine, he’s entitled to his preferences. But 70 years on this Earth and it seems like he’s seen his penthouse, some golf courses, the occasional glance out his limo window, and that’s it, other than 24/7 cable news. Strange life, given his resources.

Charles Blow reminds us: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

[Trump is] A lecher attacking a legend; a man of moral depravity attacking a man of moral certitude; an intellectual weakling attacking a warrior for justice…Trump attacks Lewis as, “All talk, talk, talk — no action”; Lewis, who repeatedly thrust his body unto the breach for justice, who was arrested, beaten and terrorized, including during the time that young Trump was at his well-heeled schools, receiving draft deferments from the Vietnam War.

In fact, one of Trump’s five deferments was in 1965, the same year as the Selma marches and “Bloody Sunday,” during which Lewis was struck so violently by a state trooper wielding a billy club that Lewis’s skull was fractured.

Let’s stop focusing on whether the Overlord-elect is “legitimate”.  The important thing is that we now have a president who wants to help Putin destroy the European Union. He wants to dismantle NATO, tear up the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and confront China.

At home, we will lose the ACA. There will be malicious surgery to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Corporate and personal income taxes (at least for the wealthy) will go down. (In fact, the rash of corporate commitments to build new production facilities in the US may be in anticipation of a corporate tax deal). We may see a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20%-30% to pay for it all. VAT’s fall disproportionately on the middle and lower classes.

There will be ideologically-driven Supreme Court appointments as well.

It is worth emphasizing that Trump has the most conservative Senate and House since at least 1930. Part of the reason he is dangerous is that the restraint centrist Republicans once placed on Republican Presidents is largely gone.

America’s center and left are so weak, they can’t stand against the programs that conservative Republicans, the Tea Party and the alt-right coalition that will govern us, are now preparing.

The question shouldn’t be whether Trump was elected legitimately, that ship has sailed.

But how will we derail his program?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Saturday Soother, January 7, 2017

Happy Birthday today Kelly!! Other than that happy fact, little went right in America this week. Our Overlord, Donald I, rode to a presidential win by saying he would bring jobs back to America that have been lost to automation and offshoring by US companies.

But economists have said for years that creating jobs for low skilled Americans will be difficult. Here is further evidence that bringing back jobs may be tougher than Trump thinks. Salon reports that for men ages 25 to 54, the work statistics are poor:

For this group, labor force participation has sunk to 88.5% from a 1954 peak of 97.9%. Most of that loss has occurred among men who have a high school degree or less, according to a report this year by the Obama administration.

And there are interesting facts to consider where unemployed men are concerned. The NYT’s Upshot reports that the jobs that have been disappearing, like machine operator, are predominantly those that men do, while the occupations that are growing, employ mostly women. More from Upshot:

Of the fastest-growing jobs, many are various types of health aides, which are about 90% female. When men take these so-called pink-collar jobs, they have more job security and wage growth than in blue-collar work, according to recent research. But they are paid less and feel stigmatized.

Upshot quotes David Autor, an economist at M.I.T.:

The jobs being created are very different than the jobs being eliminated…I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.

The issue is America’s culture of masculinity. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins says:

Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment…We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.

Why is it that men can get away with saying that they deserve better than women? Perhaps that is a rhetorical question. After all, we elected Donald Trump, who can get away with anything.

The Salon article had this snippet: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Health problems and the opioid epidemic may also be a major barrier to work, according to research by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and former Obama adviser. Nearly half of men ages 25 through 54 who are neither working nor looking for work, take pain medication daily.

Some of these men may have been injured on the job and were subsequently laid off. But some may also represent part of the huge increase in opioid use in America. They may be part of the increase in disability cases since the Great Recession: More than 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2014 (most recent statistics). Benefits paid to disabled workers totaled $11.4 billion per month nationwide, a substantial increase from the $6.1 billion paid monthly in 2004. The top three states receiving disability benefits are West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas.

We became this society honestly. Our politicians hold our corporations in high esteem. The corporations repay us by automating most jobs and shipping other jobs overseas. They do this with little or no responsibility to help displaced workers retrain, or find new work. They do this while asking for bigger tax breaks to remain domiciled in the US. They do this while blaming our education system for not providing trained, ready-to-work job entrants at no cost to them.

We just cannot count on them to be good corporate citizens.

Those on pain killers may or may not have disabilities that prevent them from working. But in any case, society does not owe unemployed working age men permanent, high paying manufacturing or mining jobs, despite whatever efforts Trump may make.

It is time for them to adapt.

We need a soother. Here is Grex Vocalis a Norwegian chorus formed in 1971. Grex Vocalis has reached the finals of the BBC contest “Let the Peoples Sing” three times. In this video they are performing “An Irish Blessing” (May the road rise to meet you) written by an American, James E. Moore in 1987, live at the Amadeo Roldán Theatre in Havana Cuba:

A Norwegian chorus performing an Irish tune, written by an American, in Cuba. That’s gotta be soothing.

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics:

May the sun make your days bright

May the stars illuminate your nights

May the flowers bloom along your path

Your house stand firm against the storm.

Facebooklinkedinrss