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The Cost of Regulation Print E-mail
by Wes Riddle    Mon, Jan 30, 2012, 06:35 AM

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 RussiaDallas, 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 as State 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 at www.WesRiddle.net and from fine bookstores everywhere.  Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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Testimony to the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 10:56 AM

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

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The Illusions of Private Equity Print E-mail
by Martin Hutchinson    Wed, Jan 25, 2012, 10:54 AM

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 Harvard Business School 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 www.greatconservatives.com–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.

 

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Hammering Through the Numbers Print E-mail
by Paul Perry    Wed, Jan 25, 2012, 10:52 AM

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 months 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.

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Constitution and Civility Print E-mail
by Wes Riddle    Mon, Jan 23, 2012, 11:07 AM

One of several important breakthroughs in political science our Founding Fathers achieved, is the establishment of an entirely new category of law; namely, the Constitution.  The Constitution is the nation’s highest legal and moral authority—popularly accepted as such.  Yet its ratification took place over 200 years ago, amongst a generation long since dead and gone.  Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College , says “Thus for Americans, the oldest law is the highest law.”  And he continues to point out how unique this is among nations:

     This is not a normal or an automatic outcome of popular government. 

     Most of the time, republics and the people who move their politics

     tend to think that if they make a law “A” one day, and a law “B” that

     contradicts “A” the next day, the newer law supersedes the old.  What

     is unusual about the Constitution is that this rule is completely reversed

     in respect of it.  The oldest law is the most authoritative, and is indeed

     the only law that “the people” as such have ever passed.  Other law is

     statute law, law made by representatives of the people.  Thus every

     other law needs to be adjudged in light of the only law that is genuinely

     ours, the Constitution.

Clearly, some would prefer that the Constitution evolve and stay up with the times.  There is even a modern liberal legal theory that affirms a so-called “living Constitution.”  This is another way of saying the Constitution means what lawyers and judges say it means.   

Besides the Constitution as a category of law, the Founders also bequeathed an aspect of culture, which helped to give the Constitution stability and its impressive longevity.  Historically a part of America ’s democratic culture, the aspect has sadly deteriorated as “living Constitution” theory advances.  I’m referring to political civility, the idea that citizens will be civil to one another despite political disagreements.  The disagreements are less important than the resolve to remain fellow citizens.  Of course, a necessary precondition for this type of civility is that citizens do agree on certain fundamentals, so that disagreements really involve secondary issues.  This is possible when the central government remains limited, or when fundamentals are settled at State and local government levels.  The War Between the States was a time when folks (rightly and wrongly) disagreed on fundamental issues, which the federal government could not leave to States or localities.  With discrete fundamentals settled on the battlefield, we’ve stayed more or less civil since Reconstruction. 

Today I wonder about the Founders’ great handiwork.  Though altered much, it has survived in large measure.  But I worry as civility departs, because government has grown too big and too intrusive in matters belonging outside its scope.  I worry as respect for the Constitution itself declines, when citizens fail to distinguish rights from their desires, and political expediency supplants principle.  During the last presidential election, people were tempted to say the popular or consolidated national majority (pure democracy) should rule the day—even though the constitutional majority entails both democracy and federalism and is the only majority that may govern the United States as a free country.  What would George Washington have thought of the spectacle?  The first president was quintessentially both civil and constitutional, in his personal example and professional conduct.  He was also straightforward and literate.  The following is taken from his Circular Letter of 14 June 1783, but Washington ’s words ring true today:

    The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance 

     and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better

     understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period; the researches

     of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent;

     the Treasures of knowledge, acquired through a long succession of years, by

     the labors of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, are laid open for our use,

     and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our

     forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension

     of Commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality

     of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had

     a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.  At

     this auspicious period, the United States came into being as a Nation, and if

     their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely

     their own.

 

___________________

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 as State 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.  His newly released book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium is available on-line and at most bookstores.  Visit: www.WesRiddle.com

 

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