Throughout my working career I’ve been blessed to work for businesses who’s owners were great businessmen. Due to these men who had big dreams to be the best in their respective companies (mobile homes, printing, restaurants, aircraft contractors) I, along with my family, have done well financially and never to this day have we been in financial distress.
Last week my wife and I went to San Antonio to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary. Driving to San Antonio I called several of my musician friends to find out where they were performing. One, Johnny, who my wife and I love his music told me he was not playing at his old gig in downtown San Antonio and gave me the name and address of the club where he now performs. Luckily, the club was close to where my wife and I stay. During a musical break Johnny told me why he was let go at his former gig and how he loathe the club owners and well educated individuals. “James, these guys think they’re better than everybody else and don’t give a damn about others!” He ranted. I then told him, “Johnny, all the years we went to see you perform at Pat’s you seemed so happy. Now they they’ve let you go, you suddenly seem so angry with the owners. Don’t you appreciate all the years you made money there? And, if it wasn’t for club owners, who will hire you? Will it be people who are on welfare and food stamps? And if it wasn’t for folks who are well educated, who in turn make good money, go out to eat, have a few drinks and give you tips, which in turn keep the club owners in business, who’s going to butter your bread?” Johnny couldn’t give me an answered.
My friends, I’ve entertained at several restaurants for almost 30 years. I’ve known the owners since we were teens. Johnny Cisneros, a close friend and owner of Los Vaqueros in the Stockyards, started his restaurant with only a dream and a loan from his brother in law. Prior to being a restaurant owner Johnny worked for his brother in law who owned a bakery and tortilla factory packing tortillas. Johnny, a great cook, once told me that he always wanted to own a restaurant but didn’t have the money to open one. He asked his brother in law for a substantial loan and luckily got it. He then opened his restaurant, which soon grew very popular in the Riverside area of Fort Worth. After a few years Johnny trained his sons to run the kitchen. Some years later, John rented a former feed store in the Stock Yards and converted it to his now famous Los Vaqueros Restaurant across from Billy Bob’s Texas (the largest country club in the USA). Later, upon the insistence of one of his sons, Johnny bought a multilevel building in the same block he ran his business. Within time he remodeled the building and converted it into a very popular Mexican eatery packed with patrons almost weekly. My friends, due to this hard working businessman, I, along with cooks, waiters, bartenders, cashiers, and busboys for thirty years have reaped the fruits off the dreams of this successful businessman.
Recently, my pastor at my church started to rant about the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones. Father Tom told the congregation that he detests the business dealings of Mr. Jones and how he cheated a lot of homeowners to obtain their homes and property to build his stadium in Arlington. He went on to tell us that he found out that Mr. Jones has a lot of the Dallas Cowboys souvenirs (jerseys, caps, etc.) made in Third World countries where children are paid 29 cents an hour to make them. As I sat listening to Father Tom’s supposedly deplorable business dealings of Mr. Jones, I suddenly remembered that just last year when Super Bowl XLV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers was held, it was the first time a Super Bowl was played in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the third time it was held in the state of Texas. I honestly believe that bringing the Super Bowl to our area is nothing to sneeze at. That to me is the expert dealings of a business sports genius! In the week prior to the game, I would drive to downtown Fort Worth to my favorite bar restaurant and all of downtown Fort Worth was teaming with tourist from Green Bay and Pittsburg. All I assume renting rooms in Fort Worth hotels and motels which were full to capacity and spending money in all of the restaurants, clubs, and department stores. On the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday, Los Vaqueros, where I entertain was full to capacity with tourists who were here to see the game and enjoying our Western Heritage in the world famous Stockyards. Folks, I, along with my musicians made out like bandits in tips thanks to businessmen like Mr. Jerry Jones, and Mr. Johnny Cisneros.
Days after Father Tom’s Sunday’s rant at mass I received an email from my cousin which showed how much people from around the world spend a week on groceries. One of the photos, which showed a family of six in a Third World country, caught my eye. The photo showed the meager staple food these poor people eat in a week, which costs them a whopping $1.23, which they can barely afford. It then dawned on me that if just one of these poor people kid’s worked making Dallas Cowboy souvenirs at 29 cents an hour for 8 hours a day for a week, it totals to $16.24 a week, which would adequately in my humble opinion feed the whole family for several weeks.
My friends as a young boy of 12, I set pins at a bowling alley for 10 cents a line for several years. I remember earning around 14 bucks a week and I’d give mom half of my earnings. Mom, back in the early 50s could buy a lot of groceries with 7 bucks. I don’t recall her ever telling me not to work because I was a boy. I also remember Hispanic families leaving for months with their kids to go pick cotton, fruits, or whatever to help sustain the family.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Father Tom’s family probably bought him clothes made out of cotton when he was a kid, which more than likely was picked by a young Hispanic 12-year-old kid working long in the hot sun in Texas!
Regulations exist to ensure that what people do is done a certain way. We don’t want people to erect fences, unless they are so high and made of such and such. We don’t want folks to be able to add on to their houses, unless the additions blend nicely and meet certain safety standards—for people and for wildlife. We sure don’t want someone to invent a craze or gadget that might catch on, unless we determine in advance how the paperwork should be filed, how much it ought to be taxed, who will inspect the item or activity. We don’t even want a few folks to work at all, unless we establish licensing requirements first or mandate membership in some organization.
Regulation in general costs individuals and businesses a lot of money to comply. Costs are passed on to consumers, or else taken in the shorts. Of more concern, according to ABC News reporter John Stossel, is the sheer distraction of creative power. The proverbial bar is raised by regulations, i.e., the threshold for achievement goes harder if not exactly higher. Creative impulses can in fact be thwarted, because regulations distract focus, diffuse effort, discourage risk-taking, frustrate intent, and spend a lot of (life)-time. Thus, things that could be simply aren’t, because the regulatory environment keeps them from being realized—a new engine or energy source perhaps, new medicine, maybe just a better mousetrap. The reason is that an inducement one place is a disincentive someplace else. Regulatory roadblocks and obstacles, including scrutiny, result in a comparative incentive to do something else or to go somewhere else. The implied message is certainly not one for the budding hero. Rather, regulations choke the best and instruct men and women of initiative to take the easier road, the one most traveled. Regulations don’t only depress the economy, they also depress the spirit.
The difference between something regulated and unregulated is in the measure of freedom. Stossel shrewdly observes that,
Visitors to Moscow before the fall of communism noticed a dead-eyed
look in the people. What was that about? I don’t think it was about
fear of the KGB. Most Muscovites didn’t have intervention by the secret
police in their daily lives. I think it was the look that people get when
they live in an all-bureaucratic state. If you go to Washington, . . . you’ll
see the same thing [in government agencies].
In order to get a new drug approved today, it costs $500 million and takes ten years. Thousands die waiting on the approved release of drugs that could be available now. Millions die for want of medicines that won’t be invented soon enough. The simple alternative in the area of medicine, as elsewhere, would be for the government to serve as an information agency and not as a nanny placement service. Did any of you hire the fed to be your babysitter? Sometimes I wonder who/what the government thinks it is! (It ain’t us for sure). Even if we allowed for some (albeit inefficient) government research, information alone would do more to help free people protect themselves than twenty-one warning labels on a stepladder. Indeed, that’s where we as a people may have gone wrong: we value other things now more than freedom it seems. “Give me absolute safety or give me death!”
The Clinton years accelerated a trend from the sixties, when he added 500,000 new pages to the Federal Register—a spider web of new little rules for everyone to obey. Notwithstanding the information age growth during the nineties, the US grew into an economic powerhouse in years when the government didn’t account for as much of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For most of American history, government’s share of GDP was five percent or less, but today it’s forty percent. Some regulations are necessary, and I don’t mean to categorically denounce them all—indeed, some environmental regulations even lack alternative market incentives. But let’s get off this regulation kick that stifles innovation. Today Los Angeles has the same economic output as all of Russia. Dallas, Texas outranks the whole country of Thailand, in terms of economic output. That should illustrate plain-as-day this important inverse relationship: between the healthier, wealthier societies of the world and those that are corrupt, bureaucratic, and politically controlled. Freedom should never take a back seat to “the good of the people” divined by government. Tell our babysitter she can go home now; we’ve suddenly grown up.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves asState Director of the Republican Freedom Coalition (RFC) and is currently running for U.S. Congress (TX-District 25) in the Republican Primary election scheduled April 3, 2012. This article is from his newly released book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium available on-line atwww.WesRiddle.net and from fine bookstores everywhere.Email:
Chairman Tom Pauken's Testimony to the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee on January 26, 2012
Thank you Chairman Davis, Vice Chairman Vo, and all the members of this committee for giving me the opportunity to testify before you today.
Texas has weathered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression better than any other large labor market state both in terms of job creation and economic growth. Our status as an economic development leader is no accident but rather the result of a firm commitment on the part of our state’s leaders to keep government spending restrained, taxes low, and regulations both reasonable and predictable. It’s a recipe that makes Texas the number one state in America to do business.
In order to remain an economic leader, we must remain committed to these core principles. But that will not be enough. Growing the private sector with good paying jobs requires that we restore the manufacturing sector – a sector that has undergone a severe decline over the past decade, both in the U.S and even here in Texas.
In the past, the manufacturing sector provided working-class Americans with good-paying jobs that made it possible to for them to provide for a family and enjoy long-term stability. Moreover, a vibrant manufacturing sector was a sign of a growing economy in which innovation and productivity were rewarded.In order for Texas to lead the way in economic development, we must make the rebuilding of a strong manufacturing sector a top priority.
You may be tempted to ask whether or not anything can really be done at the state level to address the decline of manufacturing? After all, isn’t the enormous hit that manufacturing has taken over the last decade the result of large-scale, macro trends at the national and worldwide level? It’s true that our national business tax system is the most onerous in the world and that it results in jobs being shipped overseas. And it is also the case that globalization has made it easier to access cheap labor in the developing world. And yet, despite the fact that the U.S. shed five-and-half-million manufacturing jobs from 2001 to 2010 (250,000 of which were in Texas), manufacturing firms across the nation are complaining of a shortage of skilled workers. And this is precisely the area where Texas’ policymakers can make a real difference.
The skills shortage has received increased attention with the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal all publishing major stories in the last four months on the challenge faced by many companies looking to hire skilled workers. Our Texas employers express the same concern to me. The annual survey of Manpower Group for 2011 found that the hardest jobs to fill in the United States were for the skilled trades.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a survey by the consulting firm, Deloitte, “found that 83 percent of manufacturers reported a moderate or severe shortage of skilled production workers for hire.”
These jobs pay a good wage. In Texas, employees in the manufacturing sector earned, on average, $1,200 a week. Here in Austin, it’s nearly $1,800. And those working to produce computer and electronic products make almost $2,000 a week on average.
In light of the demand for skilled workers and the earning potential such jobs provide, you would think we would be doing more to train students at the secondary level for a career in the skilled trades. Instead, we have steadily deemphasized vocational and technical training, preferring to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach which says that everyone should attend a four-year university.
For lawmakers committed to addressing that demand for skilled workers, one of the most important things we could do here in Texas is to reform our educational system so that we place greater emphasis on technical and vocational training at the secondary school level.
A number of school administrators tell me that they are supportive of that concern, but they are constrained from addressing it because performance and financial incentives imposed by the state are so linked to their students’ performance on the TAKS test and the recently introduced STAAR test. So much of our educational system is driven these days by this “teaching to the test” mentality from the third grade through high school. Resources, both dollars and time, are devoted to those classes which correspond to the subject matter tested by the TAKS and STAAR tests. However, vocational and technical classes remain largely neglected.
Why not recognize the reality that for many students, a four-year university is not the best path? About half the students who attend Texas’ public colleges fail to graduate in six years. Consider this disturbing statistic from career counselor Marty Nemko: “Among high school students who graduated at the bottom 40 percent of their classes and whose first institutions (they attended after high school) were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.”Plus, I suspect they – or their parents – have amassed a lot of college debt.
Perhaps, they don’t enjoy or do well in a classroom environment; or maybe they just prefer working with their hands and are eager to enter the workforce and begin earning income instead of taking on the crushing debt that often goes along with 4+ years of attending college. But, instead of providing such students with skills training at the secondary school level that will allow them to enter the workforce upon graduation, we place them in classrooms where instructors are forced to teach to the test.
Are we setting young people up for failure by promoting the idea that a college education is their only ticket to the good life – young people who might have thrived had they been given opportunities for vocational and technical education in high school?
Let’s replace the one-size-fits-all TAKS and STAAR tests that we use to evaluate all our students, with two different tests – one that measures college readiness for those that plan to pursue that route such as the ACT or SAT, and one that measures career readiness.
Community colleges play an important role in providing career education in the skilled trades. When employers come to our agency – or to the local workforce development boards – looking for employees with specific technical skills, we turn to the community colleges. That’s why I’ve been such a strong supporter of these institutions during my time as chairman. But to have a truly trained and skilled workforce we need to do more than fill in the gaps on an ad hoc basis. We must have a long-term plan that begins educating young Texans in the skilled trades long before we get a call from an employer telling us that the local labor market isn’t meeting its needs.
While it is true that the current condition of the national economy poses significant challenges for Texas, we need not despair. But we must not be naïve either. Growing the private sector and rebuilding manufacturing will require a deliberate strategy and the courage to implement real reform. I believe it is time for a whole new model of education – a model that will help to provide greater opportunities for many young Texans. Thank you for your time.
Tom Pauken is Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission
The controversy over Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital has led me to realize that private equity is a poorly understood business whose economic effects have not yet been fully explored and are in many respects pernicious. This is not a knock on Romney, who in my view would be a mediocre candidate for President however he had made his fortune (although that view might be modified if he had gained it through supreme business creativity like, say, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.) It is also not a knock on Bain Capital, which appears to have adhered to the standard practices of the private equity industry. However that industry itself is of questionable economic utility and many of its practices can fairly be described by Governor Rick Perry’s term of “vulture capitalism.”
I know, because I have been there, and done that – or at least seen it done. As a banker in Croatia I was responsible for a portfolio of over 50 private equity stakes the bank had acquired, mostly through debt-equity swaps in bankruptcy. In some of those cases, adding management value was fairly easy. For example we owned the largest naturist camp on the Mediterranean, whose management claimed that naturism was going out of style because their guests were getting older and older, now with an average age of 58. It turned out that management spent almost nothing on marketing – and I can assure you from observing naked and gloomy 70-year old Germans grilling bratwurst that word of mouth alone did little to attract the more youthful demographic!
The one feature of private equity investing we did not especially use in Croatia was leverage, since the bank already owned the private equity stakes concerned. However leverage, creatively applied, is the key to private equity’s remarkable track record of returns – and to its much less attractive record in creating economic value.
In its initial phase, in the early 1980s, the private equity industry, then known as the leveraged buyout industry, scored some spectacular successes, both in terms of profit and value creation. In January 1982, Wesray Capital, controlled by an investor group led by former U.S. Treasury secretary William Simon, acquired for $80 million (of which the downpayment was rumored to be $1 million) a greeting card company, Gibson Greetings; when this did a $290 million Initial Public Offering just 16 months after the original deal, Wall Street naturally sat up.
At that period, after a decade of inflation and low stock market returns, assets were available at low prices and there were a number of cases in which sizeable companies had been mismanaged by “country club” management, so a turnaround was easy. Leverage was used, but interest rates were so high that only low asset prices and easy turnarounds made the business profitable – it flourished primarily by picking this “low-hanging fruit.”
The growth of the LBO business was spurred by two additional factors: the existence of Michael Milken’s new “junk bonds” trading operation at Drexel Burnham Lambert and the beginning of the long secular decline in interest rates, which allowed buyers to refinance deals at lower than anticipated costs, making them spectacularly profitable.
Inevitably this exceptional profitability drew in additional money. Bain Capital, for example, had begun in 1984 by doing traditional venture capital deals, in which it financed fledgling companies and helped them grow, ideally realizing its investment through a stock market IPO. This initial business unquestionably created jobs, most famously at the office products retailer Staples, founded by my HarvardBusinessSchool classmate Tom Stemberg with Bain Capital financing. However venture capital was a chancy business, often taking several years to produce returns and was not especially well suited to Bain, since Bain’s consultants were more used to advising much larger companies. Conversely the well-connected Bain was well able to attract large pools of capital once it had a track record, and was highly plausible when claiming expertise in turning round companies subject to leveraged buyouts. The migration of Bain’s business from venture capital to LBOs was thus unsurprising.
The Drexel crash of 1989-90, the struggles involved in the $31 billion takeover of R.J.R. Nabisco and the tight credit period of 1990-92 caused a recession both in the returns of the LBO business and in its public reputation. The latter problem was solved by rechristening the business “private equity.” Theoretically, this term applied to unleveraged portfolios such as I managed in Croatia, and even to the traditional venture capital business. In practice, the vast majority of the capital involved continued to be devoted to LBOs. In an era of low and declining interest rates, they were by far the most profitable sector of the private equity market, and in those years they required very little ability to carry out. With interest rates low and declining, leverage at unprecedented levels was easy to obtain, at least until 2008 – after all, since the LBO business only got started after interest rates peaked in 1982, its loss experience was excellent.
High and cheap leverage has a number of effects. First and most important, it magnifies the returns available from what were at best marginal improvements in operations. Indeed, the return on saving $100 in operating costs is trebly leveraged. First, if the company is saleable at a multiple of say 7 times EBITDA, an extra $100 saving in the most recent year increases its value by $700. Second, by squeezing hard in the last year before sale, a seller can improve the profits trend, and produce apparent growth in margins where no such growth truly exists – thereby increasing the EBITDA multiple itself. Third, the $700 increase in value of the asset (plus any excess from increasing the EBITDA multiple) flows through entirely to the equity holders, so an asset leveraged 5 or 10 times and squeezed operationally can produce spectacular returns to equity investors. Even after the fees extracted by the management company, outside investors do well, while the management company, typically receiving 20% on any capital uplift for zero investment, gets rich very quickly indeed.
This super-incentive to extract the last penny of savings from the companies they control inevitably leads LBO companies to squeeze their companies too hard. Typically, an LBO managed company will stint on maintenance and research, thereby dressing up operating results and sticking the buyer with an asset that is in poor condition with no product pipeline. The effect of Eddie Lampert’s ownership at Sears exemplifies this. After he bought the company, Lampert determined that a retail operation could be run with far less money devoted to decoration and cleaning than was traditional, which savings could both service debt and increase the value of his investment. Unluckily for him (presumably) the 2008 crash prevented him from selling Sears quickly enough, while customers over time deserted its filthy and poorly staffed stores, so that now, six years after he bought Sears, he is looking at a loss of $421 million in the latest quarter, with domestic same-store sales down 1.2% at a time of 4% inflation.
A second adverse effect of leverage is to incentivize dodgy negotiating and financing tactics. Last week, a former Wall Street banker William Cohan described Bain’s negotiating tactics, whereby they would put in a “final” bid on a company and then chisel down the price during the “due diligence” process when other bidders had disappeared (apparently this tactic was by no means exclusive to Bain). Similarly, the habit of extracting massive dividends, far greater than earnings, from companies they controlled left those companies vulnerable to the merest breeze of recession, endangering excessively the jobs of their employees.
Apart from making business thoroughly unpleasant, such tactics immensely increase the deadweight legal costs of doing deals, as documentation and protections from all kinds of unlikely contingencies proliferate ad infinitum. As we London merchant bankers were very well aware, “gentlemanly capitalism,” in which protagonists can within limits trust each other not to behave badly, is a far more economically efficient way to do business.
A further myth of the LBO business is that it can improve the value of assets it controls through superior management. This may have been true in the early 1980s, after an exceptionally flaccid period of U.S. management, but it has not by and large been true for the last quarter-century. LBO companies typically attract graduates of the top schools, but with an emphasis on those most attracted by “get-rich-quick” schemes who are generally not the most insightful or creative. Add the superior pay and conditions received by LBO staff, especially compared to management of the industrial companies they take over, and you have an extreme “us/them” problem that is barely if at all mitigated by throwing a few top stock options to the favored few among the industrial company’s management.
The problem is exacerbated by cost-cutting, through which favored projects are shut down without notice, while comfortable pension and other benefits are hollowed out and replaced with inadequate money-purchase schemes. The hostility to the LBO’s overstuffed yuppies which this produces is only exceeded by the contempt that rapidly appears for their entire ignorance of many of the basic features of the company’s business and competitive environment. Naturally, with management and workforce hostile to those controlling the business, things go wrong and inefficiencies and corruptions proliferate. The private equity industry nourishes the myth that many LBO managed companies would fail without their involvement; against the companies for which this is true must be balanced the others for which LBO involvement, extracting resources and starving operations, produces failures that would otherwise not have occurred.
Finally, as has become clear in the Bain discussion, the high returns achieved on LBO investments are matched by job losses and deterioration in working conditions – both attractive means for the LBO companies to extract “value.” Even if successful LBO deals on average break-even in job creation, with jobs lost through cost-cutting being matched by those gained through genuine improvements in operations, there are also the unsuccessful deals, in which the LBO company, having invested little, loses relatively little money, but where bankruptcy or facility closure result in massive job losses. For the economy as a whole, the cost of these job losses (and the subsequent periods of unemployment suffered by the employees concerned) must be subtracted from the profits made by the LBO sponsors and their investors to get a true societal accounting.
Through leverage, LBOs often provide investors with higher returns than true venture capital, especially in periods like the present when real interest rates are negative. They also provide quicker returns, and require less effort, because the value creation required is less. However their contribution to overall economic welfare is at best modest, unlike that of true venture capital. We must therefore hasten the return of sharply positive interest rates, which will devastate the LBO business and redirect its resources towards true venture capital, where they are far more valuable to the overall economy.
Originally posted in The Bear's Lair
Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, 2005)—details can be found on the Web site –and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of “Alchemists of Loss” (Wiley – 2010). Both now available on Amazon.com, “Great Conservatives” only in a Kindle edition, “Alchemists of Loss” in both Kindle and print editions.
Existing home sales were recently reported as being up 1.7 percent for 2011. That is cause for some economic optimism, but the underlying numbers should perhaps give reason for further examination. Inventories of existing homes dropped to a 6.2 month supply of homes. In other words, we have more than a six month’s supply of homes overhanging the market nationwide before demand for new homes would substantially increase.
New home construction drives a lot of things. In order to build a new home, materials are purchased -- everything from wood and brick to plumbing supplies and copper wire.
These purchases and construction cause beneficial effects on demand throughout the economy. Maybe most importantly, new jobs are created.
Currently, however, almost a third of homes are being bought for cash, many of them by investors. In other words, we are still working through the existing home inventory. And although new construction is starting to occur, strong demand for new homes is awaiting the inventory for new homes to be absorbed.
Analysts regard the large number of new cash purchases as being caused by the fact that it is currently far more difficult to qualify for financing, leaving many homes to be purchased by cash or with very large down payments -- by the few who can afford it. A few years back, it was far too easy to qualify for a home loan, but – like we do so often – it appears that now we have swung to the other extreme. It is now too hard to borrow.
In the meanwhile, according to the numbers, we have some sluggish improvement in home purchases, and no doubt many older homes are being remodeled. This helps employ a few people, but the national economy, the people and our local governments await a more reasonable increase in the pace of construction that would follow more rational loan guidelines from our masters in Washington.