Sunday, December 19, 2010
The runtime is about 90 minutes, but it's a good overview of the key concepts in The Black Swan, if you haven't had time to read the book. The parable of the turkey is particularly humorous, but makes an important point: intentions that we infer from previous events that may tend to confirm a belief, may actually be the opposite of what we believe. As Taleb's story goes, by virtue of the farmer showing up every day and feeding the turkey, the turkey's trust grows more each day that he is loved and cared for, right up until the hatchet falls. Another good takeaway: don't confuse infrequency with randomness. There's nothing random about market crashes, terrorist attacks, great fires, wars, earthquakes, etc., as they are, in effect, planned or conditions-based. The normal distribution (bell curve) doesn't apply to them, yet we insist on assuming that it does, and often to our peril.
Click here to see the video.
As Yogi Berra said, "The future ain't what it used to be."
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Given Tuesday’s election results, there has been much reflection and debate in the media and in Washington about what went wrong for Obama and the Democrats. As suggested by Kathleen Parker in a recent op-ed, and I agree with her, "The election was a referendum on policies that are widely viewed as too overreaching and, ultimately, threatening to individual freedom. It's that simple." Others, perhaps most notably Paul Krugman, state that the stimulus was simply too small and was consequently ineffective, thus not reviving employment and turning voters against the Dems. As Krugman says, "Mr. Obama’s problem wasn’t lack of focus; it was lack of audacity. At the start of his administration he settled for an economic plan that was far too weak. He compounded this original sin both by pretending that everything was on track and by adopting the rhetoric of his enemies."
Although it's important to understand the political climate, we must address the real issue when we start talking about the stimulus and our economic recovery. We all want to reduce unemployment, but the first question to ask is, is unemployment the real problem or is it a symptom of something else? To date, the Fed and the Obama administration have approached our economic woes as if we were merely in an ordinary recession. Following the standard cures for such an event, they believe all will be well with a little time, provided we can just keep the public spending. In essence, they're trying to load the citizenry onto an arc so we can ride-out a tsunami safely at sea, and once the waters subside from our island paradise, we'll return to the shore and resume our lives. Well, I would suggest that the shore is not there any longer, and never really was.
I absolutely agree that we need to buffer our citizens from the shocks of this downturn. However, the real problem is that the economy we have known for the past 30 years was a myth. With the inventions of credit cards, second mortgages, and the mortgage securitization markets (the one sponsored by the government and its evil cousin, sponsored by Wall Street), we have been riding a debt-fueled bubble since the Reagan era. Debt-fueled growth was an easy path for the Republicans to take because it kept the economy firing on all cylinders once the growth associated with the post-WWII/baby boom era began to subside. The bubble worked for the Democrats as well, because it supported their social agenda of home ownership, and it enabled growth in the tax base that supported the progressive agenda of big, "the-government-shall-provide" government. The ruse created an unholy alliance between left and right that went unspoken, even when it became very dangerous. In any event, as we have learned twice now in the past 10 years, bubbles are not sustainable, and we experienced the inevitable collapse.
What disturbs me is that our political leaders still don't seem willing to face the reality that we need to create a new economy. When the dot-coms went bust, everyone knew the early-stage dot-coms didn't have viable business plans, so no one advocated that we devise ways to keep their employees in place until the public came to their senses and started finally using Webvan and Pets.com. Instead, we let those businesses go bust, we provided unemployment benefits to the dislocated, and we waited for businesses to get back on their feet and start hiring again. It actually didn't take very long. The current situation is more insidious, though. Because we were riding an inflated economy for so many years, many excesses became baked into our culture that simply cannot be sustained: federal and state agencies that don't provide a return on investment; ridiculous salaries, benefits and retirement schemes for many government workers; plus we had a misallocation of labor, with many civilians working in bubble-related industries, such as mortgage banking and construction. All of these excesses need to be eliminated in order to create a new, sustainable economy, as we are not going to have the money available to pay for governmental waste or to keep people in jobs that provide goods and services that are no longer in demand. Instead, rather than returning to a consumption-based economy, we must create an investment-oriented economy that is supportive of innovation and entrepreneurship. We must build a new economy that is based on viable business models that generate in-demand goods and services.
The current stimulus may, in fact, have been too small, but that's not to say that what has been spent was wisely spent in an effort to bridge us over to a new economy. The spending has been incredibly scattershot (details here), and virtually all of it supported the "arc and tsunami" scenario noted above. So far, we have spent on tax cuts to support consumption, we have kept government workers in their jobs, we have helped states keep their Medicaid programs going, we've provided unemployment benefits, and we've created some temporary jobs at incredible cost, not to mention doled out billions in pork to individual Congressional districts as quid pro quo payoffs to our Congressional reps. All of this spending has been done with no one -- not Obama, or anyone in Congress, or any members of the intelligentsia, like Krugman -- painting a picture of the new world we would emerge into once all the spending was done, nor have they given us a realistic, properly prioritized spending plan or timeline for getting us there. And do you know why that is? It's because they still haven't faced the reality that our world must change, and that's because they've never really searched for the root cause of our problems.
The answer is that we need to spend little AND we need to spend large. In other words, the spending needs to be differentiated and prioritized. Our former economy popped, yet the Fed and our government are spending trillions in doomed fiscal and monetary strategies to try to reinflate the same bubble. It won't work. Rather than clinging to broken systems, we need to accelerate the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. We need to support our brothers and sisters who have been displaced, but we need to steamline our spending so we can marshal the rest of our resources and refocus them on revitalizing the economy. Inconsistent with revitalization is spending on "make-work" temporary employment. Tempting as it may seem, it should be avoided, as there is no lasting value in the jobs, the projects cost too much to plan and supervise, and the work only postpones the inevitable. Moreover, the cost of the labor can oftentimes be exceeded many times by the cost of materials; e.g., there's more to the cost of a bridge to nowhere than the cost of the labor. The people are better off spending their time learning a marketable skill.
There are many things that we can and should be doing, and that's where the big spending comes in. For example, maybe I'm dreaming, but how much would it cost and how huge would the benefits be if we completely revitalized the city of Detroit? Can you imagine the economic and societal benefits of lifting half a million people up a step or two on the economic ladder? Undoubtedly, the cost would be enormous. Doing so might involve paying to relocate half of the population to other parts of the country (voluntarily, of course) and demolishing entire sections of the city, then consolidating the rest in order to make the city a community again. The remaining people would need to be trained and businesses would need to be provided with incentives to move in. This is just one grand-scale project that would cost big, but until we take it on, a city like Detroit will forever be an anchor chained to this country's feet. Of course, there are many smaller initiatives as well that we should take on: provide business start-up loans and grants; provide salary-based tax credits to existing businesses to take the risk out of hiring new employees; provide vocational training; provide businesses with tax credits for relocating and hiring the unemployed from economically depressed regions, and so on.
It's no wonder many people questioned the value of the stimulus. The problem we were trying to address had never been defined, a picture of the end game had never been painted, the objectives of the spending were too unfocused, and the results were not visible enough or were not individually significant enough to demonstrate the kind of success that would win public support. For example, there was no Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, AlCan Highway, or Tennessee Valley Authority, which were all projects from the Depression era that generated huge economic benefits, past and present. Moreover, as many on the left have criticized, expectations were not properly set. It was a mistake to let the public believe that a real fix could be effected in just a year or two. We are attempting to rebuild from a disaster that was 30 years in the making. That's going to take time, patience, determination, and a real plan.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
I just read a good article by David Smick on the role of confidence in restoring and maintaining a robust economy.
To add my own thoughts, confidence comes from predictability and trust. Job #1 for the government is to stop creating uncertainty and to implement systems that ensure fair playing fields for all, whether they be entrepreneurs or ordinary taxpayers.
Job #2 is to eliminate government waste and other spending that isn't absolutely vital to restoring the economy, thereby allowing government funds to be aimed at viable investments and a reduced tax burden (which also helps with Job #1).
Job #3 is for government to make the targeted, huge investments -- that only it can make due to its size and reach -- in education and infrastructure that will enhance industrial productivity and enable new business formation.
Job #4 is to provide incentives for people and companies to invest their new excess capital (from #2's tax savings) here in the U.S. Creating abundant capital and making it easier to achieve returns on that capital will reduce the cost of that capital to those he want to use it. Many investments that have been off the table for a generation now -- like building a blue collar factory -- would become viable again. Despite all the press about everyone needing to be a knowledge worker, we can definitely make use of well-trained people who can work with their hands, as they do in Germany.
It is well within our means to put people back to work and to set the stage for sustained prosperity. Some sacred cows will need to be slayed, "business as usual" (e.g., earmarks) in Washington will need to change, and we'll need to endure some upheaval as government workers are displaced and redeployed in industry, but the effort would be worth it. We just need to get on with it.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
As a follow-up to my last article on the importance of change management, below are a coupled of links to analyses of Obama's success or lack thereof in managing change. Both analyses reference the Harvard/Kotter change management model that I mentioned in my article.
"...Obama seemed to miss the opportunity to re-mobilize and engage the millions of supporters that had been energized by his campaign and to redirect them towards specific initiatives. Instead, he seemed to focus his efforts on traditional political forms of influence, with the unintended consequence of even greater polarization than there was at the beginning of his term."Analysis from the Harvard Business Review blog: click here.
"President Barack Obama embarked on one of the most challenging change leadership initiatives imaginable -- with no previous large-scale change experience. Some have said that inexperience does not matter if the president surrounds himself with experienced people.Analysis from Human Resource Executive Online: click here.
They were wrong."
Sunday, October 3, 2010
"We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now."
This is an essential truth from Tom Friedman's brilliant October 2, 2010 article in the NYT (see article below).
To expand upon the importance of consensus building, in my opinion, we will never move forward as a nation until our political leaders understand the change management process, keys to which are establishing a legitimate sense of urgency about the problem(s), developing a unifying vision for a better post-change state, and building the consensus necessary to proceed into action.
No matter what any president's party affiliation, consensus of Democrats AND Republicans will be necessary to avoid gridlock. Impossible, you say? Well, that's what true leadership is all about. Building consensus is absolutely necessary, no matter how long it takes and no matter how painful the process may be. It will take an enormously patient, open-minded, courageous and determined president, but as we've seen with the divisiveness that results from the traditional approach -- which Obama fell into the trap of following -- attempts to shortcut the change management process simply don't work. I'm not saying Obama hasn't been well-intentioned (although I do disagree with his vision for our nation), but he either didn't know or didn't respect the process, and more harm has been done than good.
Click here to read more about the change management process, according to Harvard's John Kotter, who is arguably the foremost expert on the subject.
Third Party RisingBy THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
A friend in the U.S. military sent me an e-mail last week with a quote from the historian Lewis Mumford’s book, “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Mumford was describing Rome’s decline: “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”
It was one of those history passages that echo so loudly in the present that it sends a shiver down my spine — way, way too close for comfort.
I’ve just spent a week in Silicon Valley, talking with technologists from Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, Intel, Cisco and SRI and can definitively report that this region has not lost its “inner go.” But in talks here and elsewhere I continue to be astounded by the level of disgust with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system — so much so that I am ready to hazard a prediction: Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.
There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.
President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.
But there is another angle on the last two years: a president who won a sweeping political mandate, propelled by an energized youth movement and with control of both the House and the Senate — about as much power as any president could ever hope to muster in peacetime — was only able to pass an expansion of health care that is a suboptimal amalgam of tortured compromises that no one is certain will work or that we can afford (and doesn’t deal with the cost or quality problems), a limited stimulus that has not relieved unemployment or fixed our infrastructure, and a financial regulation bill that still needs to be interpreted by regulators because no one could agree on crucial provisions. Plus, Obama had to abandon an energy-climate bill altogether, and if the G.O.P. takes back the House, we may not have an energy bill until 2013.
Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.
“We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country,” said the Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond. Indeed, our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems. We simply will not be able to do the things we need to do as a country to move forward “with all the vested interests that have accrued around these two parties,” added Diamond. “They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations,” where each one’s gains are seen as the other’s losses.
We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.
“If competition is good for our economy,” asks Diamond, “why isn’t it good for our politics?”
We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”
Friday, September 17, 2010
Why is this a problem? Because the Dow is considered (although wrongly) to be a barometer of the health of the entire economy. If the Dow is doing poorly, it influences the psychology and behaviors of consumers and business leaders. With a poorly constituted index, as is the case now, false indications can more easily result, which is potentially harmful, as a negative trend in the Dow could trigger behaviors that could cause a recession.
Do we really want the price movement of three or four stocks to influence the psychology of the country, if not the globe? Some of the current heavy hitters in the index, like IBM and McDonalds, are doing fine now, but they had significant business issues within the past 20 years that dramatically deflated their stock values and which had nothing to do with the state of the economy as a whole. That could certainly happen again, and it's nothing trivial. Obviously, I'm dramatizing the risk somewhat to illustrate my point, but why unnecessarily create risks, especially after what we've been through over the past couple of years? The public is tired of having its fortunes dictated by Wall Street.
Given that price per share is simply a function of how many shares are outstanding, which has no relevance to anything, why not base the weighting on something more rational, like market cap, or why not even do an equal weighting?
Here’s a good explanation of what’s going on, in case this subject is new to you.
Click here for a link to the article that the video is from.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
The photo above is of CalPERS' list of Top 10 pensioners. Between $200K-$500K a year for life? Good for them, but not for the taxpayer. (Click here for California Pension Reform's searchable database.)
Daniel Borenstein at the Contra Costa Times has been doing a bang-up job of reporting on how out of control our public pensions are in California (see link below). Not only is the system itself outdated and flawed, but the tactics used by some public employees -- with the support of their bosses -- to "spike" their pensions just prior to retirement border on criminal behavior, as far as I'm concerned.
Those of us in the private sector have to rely on our self-funded 401(k) plans for our retirements. Why are we providing full pay (or more) -- for life! -- to retirees who are in their early 50s? The outrageousness of this problem is exacerbated by recent surveys that show that public workers are also better paid and have dramatically better benefits than private sector workers in similar positions. In other words, they should be more capable of providing for their own retirements than the typical private sector employee. To add insult to injury, not only do many public workers have generous pensions, but they also have the equivalent of 401(k) plans (403(b) plans, etc.) with generous employer matching. How much is enough? Especially in light of the outrageous abuses that have been exposed in the Bell, California scandal, one has to wonder why no one is responsible for monitoring the fairness of these compensation schemes. It's time for serious public pension reform.
Click here for a good article by Borenstein.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
What became very clear to me in my own research was that the bedrock of any successful, enduring corporate system consists of its leaders’ vision and values, which are expressed on a daily basis through the ethics and standards by which the company operates, through the delivery of its value proposition (i.e., the unique value it intends to deliver to its customers), and in how it operates internally in order to deliver that value proposition.
The vision of how a company will operate internally is communicated in the form of what I call an operating psychology, which consists of the organizational structures, methods, standards, processes, technologies, etc., that the organization will use to accomplish its work. The operating psychology needs to ensure that the leaders' values will be maintained through their employees' daily decisions and actions, and that such actions will produce the long-term vision the leaders have for the company.
A very basic issue to address, for example, when developing an operating psychology is to determine the level of quality the company wants to deliver as part of its value proposition, as quality has huge implications on the investments a company will make on plant and equipment, how much it will spend on training, the quality of people it will hire, whether it will use outsourcing, how much supervision it will provide to its staff, etc., etc.
Safety is another important issue. If a company's business activities are inherently risky, then the business needs to incorporate that degree of risk into its operating psychology. A company like BP, for example, would need to make sure that safety is prominently woven into the fabric of the company, and that safety would always take top priority over everything else. It must do so, as the consequences of doing otherwise can jeopardize the very existence of the company. To make safety the highest priority, the company would need to rigorously train its employees on good safety practices, and it would need to reward exhibitions of putting safety first, even when doing so results in short-term costs. Importantly, there can be no negative consequences on an employee who exercises appropriate caution -- no sideways glances, no withheld promotions, etc. Simply put, a commitment to safety must be a core value, and it must be continuously hammered into the psyche of the company.
Long story short, clearly communicating the operating psychology to the employees is every bit as important as disseminating the customer value proposition. This is where companies often fall down. After watching a 60 Minutes segment on the events leading to the BP disaster, it was obvious that there were both managerial failings on the rig and through every level in the company preceding those failings. It’s no coincidence that BP had the worst safety record in the industry even before this disaster. Clearly, a linkage between safety and the long-term sustainability of the corporation has not been firmly ingrained in BP's operating psychology. In other words, there are reasons why you get horribly short-sighted, costly and dangerous decisions from a mid-level manager on a rig in the middle of the Gulf. Those bad decisions result from breakdowns throughout the entire organization, all of which can be traced back to a failure in having a clear, enduring, and well communicated vision of how the company will operate and achieve success over the long haul.
The BP manager on the rig was worried about staying on schedule, as a slip in the schedule may have cost the company a few million dollars. Instead, by not keeping the long-term perspective in mind, he (and BP, through its bad management) created a disaster that may well bring down the entire company, and have costs on the people and ecosystems of this planet for decades to come. These same types of failings have brought down many corporations over the years, including many of the financial houses in the past couple of years. Hence, learning about these issues is really important, which is why I wanted to share these perspectives and the Booz article.
The article can be found here:
"Seeing Your Company as a System," from Booz's Strategy+Business online magazine.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Most of the major accidents we're all familiar with could have been easily prevented. The more I learn about the BP oil spill, the more I see similarities with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: 1) speed and schedule were put before safety; 2) vital information provided by engineers in the field was ignored by management; 3) those same engineers allowed themselves to be bullied into continuing their work, rather than escalating the matter or seizing the power necessary to take control and avert disaster; 4) an overconfidence due to prior records of good safety led to complacency; 5) the failure of a relatively cheap and simple component (in both cases, a type of rubber seal) ultimately triggered the catastrophic failure.
If you've never studied the results of the Challenger investigation, I can recommend it as an excellent case study in poor communication and bad management.
60 Minutes ran a great investigative segment on the causes of the BP oil spill. The video can be seen here.
The results of the Challenger investigation can be seen here.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
I have no problem with people making the most of their available opportunities and becoming rich, evenly astonishingly so. I only care that we have fair playing fields, and a government that is not in the hip pocket of a few. From one of the Citigroup papers:
"Our thesis is that the rich are the dominant drivers of demand in many economies around the world (the US, UK, Canada and Australia). These economies have seen the rich take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years, to the extent that the rich now dominate income, wealth and spending in these countries. Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper and become a greater share of the economy in the plutonomy countries."
Click here to access Citigroup's report on plutonomy.
Friday, April 16, 2010
In an email to the friend, he described himself as "the fabulous Fab standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!"
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Frank's comments are particularly shocking. Fairly early in the video, he says that we've "dealt with" all of the problems that led to the collapse of the likes of AIG and Lehman. Oh really? How have we dealt with them, Mr. Frank? If any new regulations or government powers have been implemented, please cite them.
Then, about 80% of the way through the video, he says that we'll only pay down bank debts (in future bailouts) that threaten a "total spiraling downward" (i.e., a systemic meltdown of the financial system). Mr Frank, isn't systemic risk what we need to prevent by implementing too-big-to-fail measures and Mr. Volcker's ideas regarding the segregation of high-risk, non-banking activities? The whole idea is that we need to refocus banking and Wall Street on "boring" customer-focused activities, rather than high-risk proprietary activities, so that we don't create enormous risks in the first place.
I have to say, I feel like absolutely nothing has been learned, and that the American people are in very poor hands.
Wonderful interview on Bill Moyers Journal last night with Gretchen Morgenson of the NY Times: "Eighteen months after the economic meltdown, why has Washington been unable rein in Wall Street with serious regulation? Bill Moyers speaks with financial journalist Gretchen Morgenson for a candid look at the obstacles facing substantive reform and what Congress' proposed legislation would — and wouldn't — accomplish."
Click here to watch the video on PBS' site.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
As everyone knows by now, sweeping health care reforms were approved by the House of Representatives Sunday night. President Obama signed the health care legislation this morning at The White House.
The Senate will now begin considering a package of House changes to the Senate measure in a process known as "reconciliation." The Senate needs a simple majority of 51 votes to approve the changes. Once this process is complete, President Obama will then sign the reconciliation bill and the changes will be incorporated into the measures listed below.
The health care reforms will unfold slowly. Below, I have provided a detailed timeline highlighting the major changes that would take place year-by-year.
Timeline for Implementation:
Sets up a high-risk health insurance pool to provide affordable coverage for uninsured people with medical problems.
Requires all health insurance plans to maintain dependent coverage for children until they turn 26. Prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing health conditions.
Prohibits insurance companies from imposing lifetime dollar limits on coverage and canceling policies, except in the case of fraud.
Provides tax credits to help small businesses with up to 25 employees obtain and keep coverage.
Begins narrowing the Medicare prescription coverage gap by providing a $250 rebate to seniors in the gap, which starts this year once they have spent $2,830. The gap would be fully closed by 2020.
Reduces projected Medicare payments to hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes, hospices and other providers.
Bans health plans from dropping people from coverage when they get sick.
Imposes 10% sales tax on indoor tanning.
Creates a voluntary long-term care insurance program to provide a modest cash benefit helping disabled people stay in their homes, or cover nursing home costs. Benefits can begin five years after people start paying a fee for the coverage.
Imposes a $2.3 billion annual fee on drug makers, increasing over time.
Requires employers to report the value of health care benefits on employees' W-2 tax statements.
Provides Medicare recipients in the prescription coverage gap with a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs; begins phasing in additional drug discounts to close the gap by 2020.
Provides 10% Medicare bonus to primary care doctors and general surgeons practicing in underserved areas, such as inner cities and rural communities.
Freezes payments to Medicare Advantage Plans. The first step in reducing payments to the private insurers who serve about one-fourth of seniors. The reductions would be phased in over three to seven years.
Sets up a program to create nonprofit insurance co-ops that would compete with commercial insurers.
Penalizes hospitals with high rates of preventable readmissions by reducing Medicare payments.
Initiates Medicare payment reforms by encouraging hospitals and doctors to band together in
"accountable care organizations" along the lines of the Mayo Clinic. Sets up a pilot program to test more efficient ways of paying hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other providers who care for Medicare patients from admission through discharge. Successful experiments would be widely adopted.
Standardizes insurance company paperwork, first in a series of steps to reduce administrative costs.
Limits medical expense contributions to tax-sheltered flexible spending accounts (FSA's) to $2,500 a year, indexed for inflation. Raises threshold for claiming itemized tax deduction for medical expenses from 7.5% of income to 10%. People over 65 can still deduct medical expenses above 7.5% of income through 2016.
Imposes a 2.3% sales tax on medical devices. Eyeglasses, contact lenses, hearing aids and many
everyday items bought at the drug store are exempt.
Increases Medicare payroll tax on couples making more than $250,000 and individuals making more than $200,000. The tax rate on wages above those thresholds would rise to 2.35% from the current 1.45%. Also adds a new tax of 3.8% on income from investments.
Prohibits insurers from denying coverage to people with medical problems or refusing to renew their policy. Health plans cannot limit coverage based on pre-existing conditions or charge higher rates to those in poor health. Premiums can only vary by age, place of residence, family size and tobacco use.
Coverage expansion goes into high gear as states create new health insurance exchanges – supermarkets for individuals and small businesses to buy coverage.
Medicaid expanded to cover low- income people up to 133% of the federal poverty line, about $28,300 for a family of four. Low-income childless adults covered for the first time.
Requires citizens and legal residents to have health insurance, except in cases of financial hardship, or pay a fine to the IRS. Penalty starts at $95 per person in 2014, rising to $695 in 2016. Family penalty capped at $2,250. Penalties indexed for inflation after 2016.
Penalizes employers with more than 50 employees if any of their workers get coverage through the exchange and receive a tax credit. The penalty is $2,000 times the total number of workers employed at the company. However, employers get to deduct the first 30 workers.
Provides income-based tax credits for most consumers in the exchanges, substantially reducing costs for many. Sliding-scale credits phase out completely for households above four times the federal poverty level, about $88,000 for a family of four.
Imposes a tax on employer-sponsored health insurance worth more than $10,200 for individual
coverage, $27,500 for a family plan. The tax is 40% of the value of the plan above the thresholds, indexed for inflation.
Coverage gap in Medicare prescription benefit is phased out. Seniors continue to pay the standard 25 percent of their drug costs until they reach the threshold for Medicare catastrophic coverage, when their co-payments drop to 5 percent.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Medicare was legislated in 1965, and a new payroll tax was implemented in 1966 to cover the expense of the new entitlement program. The initial tax was 0.35%, payable by both the employee and employer on the first $6,600 of the employee's wages. The $6,600 upper wage limit rose by about 50% in total over the first 8 years, and then dramatically increased thereafter, until reaching $135,000 in 1993. That represents about an 11.40% annual increase between 1966 and 1993, whereas inflation increased at an annual rate of 5.38% during that time. The upper wage limit was eliminated in 1994, meaning that the tax began to be charged on all wages at that time.
While the Medicare wage limit was being increased, the tax rate was increased continuously as well. It approximately tripled in the first 8 years from 0.35% to 1.0%, and eventually hit the current level of 1.45% in 1986. In dollar terms, the amount collected on the wage limit maximum from both the employee and employer increased from $23.10 in 1966 to $1,957.50 on the $135,000 limit that was in place in 1993. That represents a 17.2% annual increase, whereas, as noted above, inflation increased at 5.38% over that period. Hence, the maximum tax was increased at over 3 times the rate of inflation, and again, there has been no maximum tax since 1994.
Changes in the Social Security tax are equally staggering. The tax was implemented in 1937 at 1.0% of the first $3,000 of wages. It stands today at 6.20% on the first $106,800 of wages. Inflation between 1937 and 2010 was 3.76% annually, whereas the wage limit has risen at 4.95%. Hence, even if the original 1.0% tax had remained constant, the amount collected on the limit would have increased substantially more than the rate of inflation due to the more rapidly increasing wage limit. However, with increases in both the limit and the rate, the tax in dollar terms has increased on the wage limit from $30 to $6,622, a 7.57% annual increase, which is double the rate of inflation between 1937 and 2010.
Under the proposed health care reform act, to pay for the changes, the legislation includes more than $400 billion in higher taxes over a decade, roughly half of it from a new Medicare payroll tax on individuals with incomes over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples). From an article on MSNBC, here's how the tax hike would work:
"Under Obama's plan, individuals with incomes of more than $200,000 — including both wages and investment returns -would pay a 2.9 percent tax on interest, dividends, royalties and other unearned income that exceeds that threshold. Couples with total incomes over $250,000 would face the tax, too.
The proposal would also increase the 1.45 percent Medicare payroll tax on workers' wages to 2.35 percent on earnings that exceed $200,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a couple. The portion of the Medicare payroll tax paid by the employer would remain at 1.45 percent.
Under this plan, a couple that earns $275,000 in salaries and $150,000 from investments would pay the normal 1.45 percent on the first $250,000 of their wages. They would pay 2.35 percent on the last $25,000 of wages. And, because their total income tops $250,000, they would face the 2.9 percent tax on all $150,000 of their investment income.
Right now, that couple would pay $3,987.50 in Medicare taxes each year. Under the proposal, they would pay $4,212 on their wages and $4,350 on their investment income, $8,562, assuming all of that income is taxable. Congressional estimators predict any final policy would include some exemptions, such as the costs of generating investment income."
Note that in addition to the above Medicare tax hike, the House's revisions to the Senate's bill also include a 0.5% Hospital tax on high-income individuals and couples; i.e., those with incomes over $200,000 and $250,000, respectively.
Clearly, the new taxes are intended to shift the burden to the supposed rich. However, after analyzing the government's past record for increasing the Medicare and Social Security taxes, how long can we honestly expect it to be before that $200,000 floor starts to creep down, or the tax rate starts to creep up, or both?
Inflation data: ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/cpi/cpiai.txt
Historical tax rates: http://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/t2a3.pdf
MSNBC article on the new tax: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35844649/ns/health-health_care/
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Short "extras" (about a minute each)
More from Michael Lewis on the bailouts:
Michael Lewis on Wall Street pay:
Michael Lewis on how Wall Street is subsidized by the Fed:
More from Michael Burry on being a misfit:
Michael Burry on the size of his bet against mortgages:
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Faber (and the other fellow in this interview) is obviously as contrarian as one can get. However, in the ten years I've been following him, unfortunately, his opinions have been on the mark. I give him a lot of credit for being able to look at things objectively and for being willing to go on record with unpopular opinions. From my perspective, I like to gather all points of view. Blinders off, so to speak. I then try to form my own ideas based on all of the inputs.
In this video, Faber shares a few ideas on how people can protect themselves financially in the face of what he believes is a coming high-inflation environment. Faber is an advocate of buying "hard assets" that benefit from inflation, such as gold, farm land, and other real estate. This then raises the question of why he believes we'll have high inflation.
The situation is that we will about double our national debt in the next decade. Obama has been very up-front about this. Since this will be during a time when America is doing everything it can just to get back on its feet, there is no expectation that Americans will somehow become wealthier in that time frame, and therefore more capable of paying down that debt. Hence, the likely scenario is that the government will simply print money to do what's known as "infalting away" the debt. In other words, if $200 billion in bonds that China is holding come due, we would simply print the money to retire the bonds. Naturally, that would devalue our currency, which would then make everything we buy from other countries more expensive; i.e., inflation. In addition, it would make issuing additional debt in the future more expensive, as our international lenders got burned last time by getting a devalued currency in return for their bonds. After all, who wants to lend a dollar and get the equivalent of, say, 80 cents in return?
With everything then being more expensive, people would have to cut back on spending, which would create a recession and increase unemployment. With higher unemployment, the government would have to increase entitlements and deficit spending, thus exacerbating the debt problem by having to borrow more at ever-increasing interest rates. This perpetuates the cycle and accelerates our trek towards ruin, which is the doomsday scenario these guys are talking about.
Essentially, people, companies, and countries reach a tipping point when they take on too much debt, and it inevitably takes them down. This is the problem many Latin American countries ran into in past decades, and this is where the so-called "PIIGS" countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are headed today. These two gents are saying we're probably looking at the same fate in about 10 years. Frankly, I'm looking for reasons to refute what they're saying, and I'm having a hard time finding any. Fun, huh?
Sunday, February 28, 2010
- A number of European banks and America's own Goldman Sachs engineered a number of complex currency swap transactions that allowed Greece to understate its debt.
- Since these banks had inside knowledge that Greece's financial position was much less secure than it appeared, being good opportunists, the went out and bought credit default swaps (insurance against default) on Greece's debt. So, they made big fees setting up the scheme, and they stand to benefit if the scheme falls apart.
- Who did they buy the credit default swaps from; i.e., who was the unwitting sucker to take the bet? Probably multiple issuers, but it looks like the brain trusts at AIG were among them, which means that the American taxpayer would be on the hook in the case of Greece's default, given that the U.S. now owns 80% of AIG.
- So, if Greece gets closer to default, this means that the U.S. either bails out Greece to avoid losses at AIG, or it just steps up and bails out AIG yet again. Once again, the financial industry wins, and the taxpayers lose.
London investment bankers name AIG as a further CDS-seller. That company had to be nationalized during the financial crisis due to its having written insolvency insurance on American mortgages. This debt-load would have led to the collapse of the world’s biggest insurer. Prior to the financial crisis AIG is said to have widely held State credit-risk. If yet-larger insurance positions on Greece exist, then the American government would have a strong interest in preventing that country’s insolvency.
From Mr. Harrison's article:
You can read his full article on Seeking Alpha here.
In a normal corporate environment, there is a strict hierarchy in which those at the top earn more than those at the bottom. In order to rise to the top (and earn the salary and huge bonus – I might add), one needs to be considered successful. And that means putting in years of effort for which one receives performance reviews.
If you do well on these reviews, you might even receive accolades, awards and so on – the point being you are a rising star with talent. So you get promoted. “The way you’re going, you might even rise to CEO one day!” That’s the kind of praise you might hear. So the whole hierarchical apparatus is designed to align high achievement with other external signs of success: good evaluations, promotions, more money, more responsibility, more underlings, larger budgets, awards, and accolades and so on. All you need to do is look at an org chart and you get a pretty good sense of who’s supposed to be the stars. And by the way, this is how it works in commercial banking as well.
Investment banking hierarchies
But, that’s not how it works in investment banking at all. When one deal or a series of trades can mean billions in profit, even a relatively junior person can have influence on the bottom line far beyond what her title suggests. This is certainly true in the advisory business, but it is even more true in trading – especially proprietary trading, a major reason that proprietary trading is inherently risky and would be restricted under the Volcker Rule. By the way, this is also a major reason that investment banks that are public companies and not partnerships are risky companies with notoriously poor managers.
A slovenly 32-year old junior trader with terrible social skills, zero management ability and no one reporting to him can make millions of dollars a year. He’s the guy you read about in the newspaper making three times the CEO’s salary. He’s the guy that all the other firms are trying to poach. And he’s the guy that used to be referred to admiringly as a “big swinging dick.” You don’t see that at Acme Incorporated. That’s what I mean when I say it’s all about the money. You learn very quickly in investment banking that status is not all about the titles, it’s more about the money.
Read any account from investment banking like Predator’s Ball or Liar’s Poker you will quickly notice that even the higher level guys are driven to earn a lot of money, not only for the money itself but for what that money says about their status and value relative to their peers.
On the heels of the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts, it looks like Republicans are finally learning that they don't need to kowtow to the far right. I wrote about the need for this back in October.
From the Politico article:
After months of struggling to harness the energy of newly engaged tea party activists, the conservative establishment — with critical midterm congressional elections on the horizon — is taking aim for the first time at the movement’s extremist elements.
The move has been cast by some conservatives as a modern version of the marginalization of the far-right, anti-communist John Birch Society during the reorganization of the conservative movement spearheaded by William F. Buckley Jr. in the 1960s and 1970s.
“A similar effort will be required today of conservative political and intellectual leaders,” former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in his column in The Washington Post. “It will not be easy. Sometimes it takes courage to stand before a large crowd and proclaim that two plus two equals four.”
Read the full article on Politico here.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.Brooks' concern is that populist rage over abuse of the financial system will ultimately lead to the suppression of the capitalist ideals that have been so fundamental to our prosperity as a nation. His concern is valid, and the public's rage needs to be properly addressed, and without focusing that rage on a condemnation of capitalism itself.
In their view, government’s role was not to side with one faction or to wage class war. It was to rouse the energy and industry of people at all levels. It was to enhance competition and make it fair — to make sure that no group, high or low, is able to erect barriers that would deprive Americans of an open field and a fair chance. Theirs was a philosophy that celebrated development, mobility and work, wherever those things might be generated.
Capitalists in no way want to turn a blind eye to those who have corrupted and co-opted our financial system. True capitalists aren't about gaming the system, or buying political influence, or hoodwinking the masses. They believe in the rule of law, creating open and fair playing fields, and allowing funds to easily flow between investors and entrepreneurs. Therefore, it would be high on the typical capitalist's agenda to want to dispense justice to those who have abused the financial system. However, those efforts need to be intelligently targeted and the penalties should be in proportion to the crimes (see my post on Obama's financial crisis fee). Similarly, we must enhance regulation, but we must take care to not strangle the system. We must ensure that risks taken with capital are in-line with investors' intentions, but capital must be allowed to flow freely. We must give the public free and fair access to the resources of the financial system, but we must not do it in such a way that checks and balances are ignored and unintended consequences result.
Importantly, we must remember that capitalism is a system. It has no political or social agenda. It doesn't think, or feel, or have opinions -- no different from the plumbing in your house. Attempts to weave the social agenda into capitalism (e.g., to make housing "affordable") have always failed, as they interfere with the "laws of nature" that apply to capitalism, such as having to live with the risks that you create. It is implicit in the capitalist system that its "users" -- the public -- can decide for themselves how hard they want to work, and how much risk they want to take. Some will succeed, and some will fail. Like Mother Nature herself, capitalism turns a blind eye to personal tragedy and hardship. Some will go out on a limb and run their own businesses, and others will choose to become human resources in those businesses. Capitalism makes no value judgments. Businesses generate profits, and their owners evolve into investors who bankroll the next generation of entrepreneurs. That's the cycle. That's how the system works. For all its harsh realities, capitalism is simple, self-correcting (when not interfered with), elegantly pure, and time-tested. We need to protect it with everything we've got.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
To a revenge-starved public, this may sound SO right and be SO overdue, but it is SO wrong. Once again, Obama has proposed a solution — as he did with health care reform — that is so lacking in nuance that it is clear that he doesn’t truly understand the problem. Either that, or it’s simply more evidence that he’s in Goldman Sachs’ hip pocket.
So, what’s wrong with this solution? Answer: it penalizes conservative, well run institutions, and once again, lets those who are the real troublemakers off the hook. The troublemakers that are left alive, that is. Keep in mind that most of the institutions that caused the crisis are now out of business or were merged into more responsible firms and are now under new management. By far, the biggest culprit still standing — and thriving, as no financial reforms have yet been implemented — is Goldman Sachs.
Although Obama and the media refer to “banks” as a homogeneous group, it is important to separate routine commercial and consumer lenders from super-large “money center banks” (e.g., Citibank, BofA, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase) and Wall Street “investment banks,” the latter of which (e.g., Goldman Sachs) were not actually banks at all until the financial bailout. Although they’re called investment banks, they never had bank charters, weren’t regulated as banks, and didn’t have FDIC-insured deposits until Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson allowed them to convert into chartered banks in order for them to qualify for TARP bailout funds. It was a slight of hand to do a solid for his friends on Wall Street, plain and simple. The investment banks are the firms that engage in the most risky trading and derivatives activities, and such activities constitute a huge percentage of their overall businesses. Money center banks also engage in risky investment banking activities — “thanks” (I say facetiously) to the Clinton administration’s successful efforts to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act — but because they are so large and diversified in their activities, such risky activities are a much smaller percentage of their overall businesses. Even among the money center banks, however, some were much less careful than others in managing their risks: Citibank was perhaps the worst, and JP Morgan Chase seems to have been the best. Indeed, despite having a diversified portfolio of low-risk businesses, Citibank was nonetheless almost brought down by its relatively few higher risk businesses. (You remember the old saying about one bad apple, right?) Long story short, banks are very different from one another, and they need to be penalized based on the risks they take, not how big they are.
To illustrate the problem, I downloaded the September 30, 2009 financial statements for Goldman Sachs and a pretty “plain vanilla” large bank, U.S. Bancorp, from the Federal Reserve’s website. The financial statements show how much of the banks’ revenues come from routine banking activities versus high-risk trading operations, which are the “casino” activities that got us into so much trouble. Goldman’s assets as of September 30 were about 3.3 times greater than U.S. Bancorp’s, so I'll need to make some adjustments in my math for that. For the first 9 months of 2009, Goldman generated $28.3 billion of trading revenues and interest on trading assets. Essentially, rolling the dice, albeit, in a casino that they seem to have pretty much rigged most of the time, except for when things go terribly wrong. In comparison, U.S. Bancorp generated a paltry $125 million from trading. This is a staggering differential. Adjusting for the difference in the sizes of the two firms, for every dollar of assets deployed in their businesses, Goldman was conducting about 68 TIMES more casino activity. This helps put the difference in the nature of these two banks into some perspective. Relatively speaking, one is like a plodding old electric utility, whereas the other is a powder keg waiting to explode if any of its risk assumptions prove to be faulty, which is exactly what happened in 2008.
Recall, however, that Obama’s proposed fee will be based on liabilities exclusive of FDIC deposits. Granted, that helps equalize things just a bit, in that such deposits make up a much larger percentage of U.S. Bancorp’s liabilities. In other words, it will get a much larger exclusion from the fee than Goldman precisely because it is a more conservative institution, which is exactly what we want. Even so, however, when looking at casino activities for every dollar of liabilities to be taxed, Goldman is still conducting 25 TIMES more casino activity than U.S. Bancorp. Yet, they will both pay exactly the same fee on each dollar of assessed liability. Not exactly fair, is it? Relative to what it makes on high-risk activities, the fee/tax Goldman will pay will be insignificant.
Granted, I’m a financial professional, but it took me all of about 15 minutes to do this work. Importantly, though, I took the time to validate what I suspected intuitively. As I said in my second paragraph, solutions can sometimes seem so obvious and so clear, and yet be entirely wrong. This is an obvious trap to anyone who has ever done any serious analytical work, so trained professionals are always on the lookout for the biggest booby trap of all: things you think you know, but really don’t. That’s why solutions should be based on real analysis, conducted by bona fide professionals who know how to maintain their objectivity. As I have stated in previous articles, important decisions should not be based on hearsay, anecdotal evidence, or preconceived notions. Popular, but erroneous, decisions may sound good, but they don’t solve anything, they’re often unfair, and they often encourage the exact opposite behaviors of those we really want.
I know I sound like a broken record, but we simply need to demand a higher quality of work from our government.