Hey! Who turned the lights out?

By now you surely know there’s a big power outage back east. In fact, it’s the biggest power outage ever, effecting 2 countries, half a dozen states, a bunch of big cities, and millions of people. New York’s airports still appear to be closed at this writing, which will cause travel logistics problems through the weekend and according to one analyst cost each airline $10-15 million. Despite the fact that the lion’s share of the  financial markets are located in New York City, most opened for business today, some on generator power. Detroit is expected to be without power through the weekend, a fact which surprises no-one familiar with the their local infrastructure.

In the late afternoon and evening hours as the situation unfolded and people tried desperately to get from their dark offices to their dark homes, many theories developed about the cause of the massive outage: it was a fire in a Manhattan substation (which turned out to be steam and smoke from the rapid shut-down process); it was a problem at Niagra-Mohawk (they denied it); it was a lightning strike according to the Canadian Prime Minister; one commentator joked it could be UFOs; the latest theory is a problem in Ohio. Nobody knows for certain what happened, but the People In Charge assure us it is not terrorism. How can they claim that without knowing the cause? No crank calls from Osama Bin Laden?

President Bush, despite not bothering to make a public statement until 4 hours after the crisis began, is using this opportunity to call for an energy bill. Do not be shocked if it involves oil drilling in the ANWR. Don’t say nobody warned you that such a bill would make it much easier to ram through eminent domain and the construction of power plants despite the fact that all the experts said last night capacity was not the problem. Do not be surprised if it involves tax breaks for big oil services companies like Halliburton and big energy trading companies like Dynegy.

Oh right, the energy traders. The people who single handedly brought you the California Energy Crisis. In an echo of Enron I point out this paragraph, emphasis mine:

“The early confusion about the cause of the grid collapse reflects the bedeviling complexity woven into the North American electricity network. Strain on the system has increased with the boom in cross-border power energy trading, and the emergence of competitive energy markets where power is being traded across long distances.”

Yes, that’s right.This whole thing may be caused by our old friends, the energy traders. Energy trading is bad, alright? It drives costs up, it drives reliability down. The only thing that can be said in its favor is that it means people can afford to have a “Not In My Back Yard” attitude towards power generation.

If we really want to prevent this from happening in the future, we must make sure the grid has redundant, reliable, and modernized systems in place, just like when you played Sim City back in the day. We must encourage solar and wind energy, since these systems can be used in town without disturbing (or polluting) the neighbors. We must furthermore encourage the use of low power devices, such as compact fluorescent lights, LCD computer monitors and televisions, low power computer processors, and other energy efficient devices.

Drilling oil wells in the Arctic and subsidizing Dick Cheney’s cronies is not going to solve this problem.

Insurance Makes Things Cost More

When I was a kid, my parents had a friend who ran a car leasing/rental business for the local Ford dealership. This was back in the days when insurance companies were first demanding “used parts” for auto body damage repair. One fine day, a new yellow Thunderbird owned by the agency was in a wreck. A few days later, a new green Thunderbird also owned by the agency was stolen. The used parts which showed up at the body shop to repair the yellow Thunderbird were, of course, green. Nobody will ever be able to prove the second car was stolen and parted out to repair the first car, but neither can anyone prove otherwise. You will certainly never convince this man that it was sheer coincidence. He shrugged and laughed that to save a few dollars, the insurance company had bought him an entire new car.

Insurance companies makes things cost more, and not just with foolish financial decisions. Their very existence costs money. They have offices to rent, light, heat, and furnish. They have employees who deserve to be paid. They have regulations to follow and paperwork to file with the state. They have executives who must be paid enough that they don’t begin to think they should get jobs in banking or securities. They have actuarial tables to compile and interpret. Some of them are for profit, siphoning yet more money out of the system. Although some of the insurance company’s revenues are derived from investments, ultimately all this is paid for by the policy holder.

Insurance also drives up costs for virtually every business. Businesses need insurance too: property insurance; liability insurance; benefits such as health insurance for employees; workman’s compensation insurance; unemployment insurance; insurance for business vehicles. Depending on the industry, there may be over a dozen insurance bills to pay. All these expenses must be accounted for when determining how much to charge for products and services in order to make a profit.

Health insurance in particular drives costs up. It actively short circuits any semblance of the market economy in health care. Not only does the patient not pay the doctor, the patient usually doesn’t even pay the people who do. Most of the time, the patient’s employer pays the insurance company that pays the doctor. On the other side of the transaction, health insurance drives up the cost of doing business for doctors. Now, he needs to pay an employee or service that does nothing but submit insurance claims and process insurance checks. Furthermore, his staff has to spend time figuring out what portion of the final bill should be charged to the patient and what should be sent off to the biller. All of this is before time the doctor himself has to spend figuring out what the insurance company is willing to pay for, and any time he may spend on the phone with the insurance company trying to sort things out. FInally, there is little disincentive for the patient to use unnecessary services. There is a fine art to setting co-payments and deductibles low enough that people will seek help for genuine illness and high enough to discourage frivolous doctor visits, services, tests, and treatments that the patient insists upon despite lack of need.

Insurance has become a necessary fact of life in our modern society. Being without insurance can cost more than having insurance. People who do not carry insurance that they need cost everyone else money by not being part of the risk pool. Uninsured motorists cost money when they are in traffic accidents; if they can’t afford insurance they certainly can’t afford to pay for a wreck. People who do not carry homeowners or renters insurance lose everything should disaster strike. Companies without adequate liability insurance go out of business if they are sued, putting employees out of work and jeopardizing intellectual property. People without health insurance tend to wait until small illnesses become serious before seeking care, both losing productivity and turning a hefty bill into a gargantuan one — and more often than we care to think about, costing taxpayer dollars.

Going without insurance is obviously not a solution. However, something has to be done to bring insurance rates down. Insurance reform needs to be a priority in all 50 states. This is not something that can be fixed by slapping some artificial damage caps on jury awards. Indeed, most of the ways that insurance drives costs
up have nothing to do with the courts, let alone tort reform. The first step in insurance reform is not telling big business exactly how much money they can lose in a courtroom, but rather making sure that more insurance dollars are used to cover legitimate claims. Limit the profit motive: Re-mutualize.

Going Up?

Today the FOMC meets. Even before anyone arrived, even before any of the participants got dressed this morning, everyone pretty much knew what at this writing has not been announced: No change in the interest rates that the Fed controls; something about being vigilant about possible future inflationary risks. Everyone knows that these are the things they “must” say, partly because it is what everyone “expects.”

The days of watching news footage of Alan Greenspan crossing the street to the meeting on CNBC and gauging the possibility of rate changes from the size of his briefcase are long, long gone. In time, that story will be treated as some kind of urban legend. These days there is no need for the “briefcase indicator” because all moves are carefully and clearly telegraphed in advance. The seeds of today’s actions are in the comments from the last meeting, in the various public commentary made in public by members of the Fed, in the statements Greenspan last made to Congress. Just as surely, today’s statement will be the seed of the next meeting’s actions.

The Discount rate — the interest rate banks charge one another for overnight loans, for purposes of having the legally required amount of money on hand — sits at 1%. That is the result of June’s quarter of a percent rate cut, which was the latest in a long series of rate cuts since the beginning of the current economic troubles. As I have previously said, I believe there is a point beyond which rate cuts do not help the economy anymore (I think Japan may know something about that). Some critics even think that this cascade of rate cuts has been a borrowing from the future recovery and allowing companies that should have folded to flounder along. Under this theory, Greenspan should have let things get awful for a quarter or two and create a clear bottom which would theoretically have been over by now.

They can’t raise rates today, because that will make them look like fools for having lowered rates at their last meeting. That briefly summarizes all the esoteric reasons. A rate hike today would cause panic in the stock and bond markets, for no better reason than it’s not what they expect. However, the rate cannot linger here at 1% forever. It has to go up at some point. It has to go up because of certain discrepancies in the bond market and the money supply. It has to go up because we are outside the band where low interest rates make banks money. It has to go up because senior citizens are a powerful lobby in Washington that can influence the people who hired the FOMC members, and many of them live off interest. It has to go up because people have already gotten to the point where they don’t buy a new car without some kind of special deal.

And that brings us to the second thing the Fed will say this afternoon: be on the lookout for inflation. Alternatively, they may indulge in some Greenspeak to the effect of “balanced risks” to the economy. Inflation is the official reason to raise interest rates. Higher interest rates theoretically make it more expensive to borrow money, which reduces the amount of money companies spend on big things — Capital Spending. However, inflation encourages people and companies to buy things that they can afford today, because it may be more expensive tomorrow. People and companies buying things stimulates the economy and results in more jobs. So some limited inflation may turn out to be a good thing.

By the end of the year a rate increase seems likely, particularly if there is the faintest hint of the “second half recovery” actually resulting in people having jobs. But don’t expect low finance rates on new cars to instantly vanish. Don’t expect your bank to start paying you more than a pittance in interest. Consider locking in your variable rate mortgage, just because it’s unlikely for rates to be this low again in 5 years. Paying down the credit cards is frankly a good idea in any economy, no matter what the Fed does. But don’t forget, a rate hike means things are getting better.

You don’t need a crystal ball to know what will happen around 2:15 PM Eastern time today.

Small Business: The Ultimate Spark Plug

Every big business you can think of, every publicly traded company, every non-Government contributor to the Gross Domestic Product started as a little company, or part of a large company that was once a little company itself. This obvious fact is easily forgotten. Microsoft did not spring fully grown from the head of Bill Gates. Nor did Henry Ford spew forth a multi-billion dollar behemoth in a year. Effectively, every company started small, in one location. Sometimes that location was a storefront or workshop, sometimes it was nothing more than a garage or a spare bedroom. Even in today’s world of huge corporate  conglomerates, 99% of American businesses are “small,” employing fewer than 500 people. These same companies employ over half the American workforce. Small business is the spark plug in the economic engine, and the traditional leader out of recession.

Economic stimulus depends on having and spending money: people — and companies — buying things. Indeed, for the last several quarters, consumer spending has been the only bright spot in the economy. Companies buying things is particularly good for the economy, benefitting both the buyer and seller. Not only does that allow both companies to produce goods and services for sale, it allows them to pay employees for that production. Companies having money is fine, but it is people having enough money that keeps them from complaining about the economy and voting out politicians. And how do the overwhelming majority of Americans obtain money? From their jobs.

To truly and lastingly stimulate the economy, you must create jobs. Although it might on the surface seem much more efficient to encourage large companies to create lots of jobs, that approach is short-sighted. Not if, but when market conditions dictate, those additional employees will be laid off, exacerbating any existing downturn. Corporate tax breaks, dividend tax breaks, and similar measures are not going to create an appreciable number of jobs. Corporate tax breaks will serve the limited purpose of making publicly traded companies look as if they earned more money. Some of them might even spend a little money upgrading some equipment. Dividend tax breaks won’t even do that. Contrary to political rhetoric, they won’t create a single job. Dividends siphon money that could have been used on plant upgrades and hiring more employees. The only thing “eliminating double taxation of dividends” will do is encourage some people to buy shares of big, profitable companies that pay dividends, driving share price up a little bit. “Price per share” is largely irrelevant to whether or not companies are hiring.

The legion of laid off “consultants,” “contractors,” “artisans,” and “independent salespeople” who decided that there is no job they do not create for themselves is a nice start, but an end in themselves. The odds of any to them becoming employers is really quite small. It’s simply too big a hassle for such people to employ anyone on the books. This situation also puts such people in the dangerous position of “don’t work, don’t eat.” A particularly nasty cold puts them at risk of losing everything, even if they can afford health insurance. The key to sustainable economic growth is the encouragement of small business: people who become employers; companies that employ a few people for years; small local enterprises that become big national or maybe even international concerns. To encourage small business, we must do the following:

Simplify the the registration, incorporation, and taxation of small businesses. The initial expenses of setting up an LLC, complying with mountains of government regulations from all levels, and simply figuring out what taxes must be paid and to whom can be overwhelming for a new entrepreneur. Such hassles may encourage him to be self-employed (putting business taxes on the only relatively simple Schedule C) or simply decide “don’t quit your day job.”

Seriously examine the funding of small business. The Small Business Administration appears to be in the sole business of writing paperwork, press releases, and guaranteeing second mortgages. They cannot be counted on to help start a business. In fact, a bank asking the SBA to get involved is a vote of no confidence. One idea that is relatively new to the United States but appears to be working wonders in poorer nations is the “micro-loan.” These loans of under $1000 (in reality, often under $500) certainly go farther in developing nations, but the premise remains the same. Here in the States, the amounts available are a bit higher. Loan a small amount of money to buy items like tools and sewing machines, and suddenly people can go into business.

Critically reconsider barriers to entry. “Barriers to entry” are things that make it more or less difficult to enter and compete in a field. It’s almost impossible to set up in auto manufacturing or oil drilling independently. It’s difficult to start a bank. It’s relatively easy to open a restaurant, particularly a franchise. It’s ludicrously easy to set up a website. While I think most of us agree that it’s just as well you can’t on a whim open up “Gina’s Fine Handcrafted Automobiles” or “Bob’s Bank of Fort Worth,” some barriers to entry are artificial and protectionist. Some of the rules and practices have little purpose beyond limiting the competition.

Remember, 99% of American companies are small, and they have over 50% of American workers on the payroll. Economic stimulus isn’t just for the S&P 500, it’s for the little diner, store, or machine shop down the street.

Did her skirt give it away?

Don’t tell the folks at Reuters, but it is no longer necessary to point out that a woman is a woman. They seem to have inadvertently discovered that at least in some places, the glass ceiling is semi-permeable.

The headline “Citigroup Taps Woman to Run Consumer Unit” is an insult. Would they have pointed out this promotion had she been a man? Is it not the least bit important to note that her male boss is vacating her new office to become the COO? If they thought the “woman” angle was so important, they could have said “Citigroup Names Marjorie Magner as Global Consumer Group’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer” as Business Wire chose to do. This approach is subtle and commendable; it conveys the information without sending signal flares of femininity. They furthermore went on to speak glowingly of her accomplishments as an executive, adding the usual sentence or so to point out her son. Perfectly standard treatment for a brief introduction. Dow Jones didn’t consider her gender as issue at all, only using her first name once, no biographical content, dropping the “Ms.” Citigroup’s own press release on the issue was much more informal, calling her “Marge.”

Reuters might be genuinely surprised to know that Ms. Magner is not the only female executive out there. She is blessed with plenty of company on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. Female CEOs can even be found, and not just at “female oriented” businesses such as Avon. New economy companies like Ebay and even stodgy old Dow components like Hewlett-Packard have female CEOs. Women have offices in high places in a wide variety of industries, including banking, media companies, retail, pharmaceutical companies, airlines, food products, consumer products, electronics, oil companies, and brokerages. They may not be as plentiful as their Y chromosome bearing brethren, but there is no reason to shout “Hey, look, it’s a woman in the corner office!”

Congratulations on the promotion, Ms. Magner. I’m sure you are the right person for the job.

Is the TSA trying to kill air travel?

You’d better allow extra time at the airport.

In this morning’s news, we are told that our TSA screeners will be lavishing extra attention on a long list of items that have nothing in common except batteries. In fact, be prepared to drag everything battery powered out of your carry on bag: not just the laptop computer, but also the camera, the flash for your camera, CD player, cell phone, any radio more complicated than AM/FM, and even the remote key-fob for your car. In short, every single person in the security line will have at least one thing that requires additional scrutiny by your friendly screener. What a fabulous opportunity for thievery! A cornucopia of electronic gadgets, some of them quite pricey, temporarily separated from the direct scrutiny of a traveler who is really more concerned with getting his shoes back on. Lets not forget that although your friendly TSA screener is now a federal employee, he is not required to pass a civil service exam. Indeed, he is not even required to have a high school diploma. Furthermore, “airports wouldn’t put up with waits that last more than 10 minutes, the standard the government has set for its screeners.” So, the screener, who may or may not actually be able to read the manual of any of the devices in question (even if you happened to carry such paperwork), will be rapidly sorting through vast piles of gizmos with the goal of sorting you into the “get out of my way now” line to the terminal and the “wait here for in depth screening by someone who will assume you are a terrorist until you prove otherwise” line. He does not care when your flight takes off. He does not care that you are clearly on your way to an important meeting, or clearly on the way to see your grandchildren. He does not care that the gadget he is mangling or outright confiscating is perfectly normal and perhaps required for your livelihood. Screening silliness has spawned a plethora of anecdotes and websites.

Ask around. You undoubtedly know someone who has an airport screener story.

Business travelers should not put up with this. Indeed, they can’t afford to put up with it. A 3 hour flight already means losing an executive all day. And what if his luggage is lost, or destroyed during the “inspection” process? What if his company issued laptop computer is stolen while in the security line? What if the revolutionary device he was going to demonstrate to his important client is confiscated? What if he is arrested for questioning let alone protesting any of the indignities he suffers at the hands of the TSA? Businesses will be doing a lot more teleconferencing, driving to relatively close locations, and chartering private flights to more remote locations.

That leaves the leisure traveler as effectively the sole market for commercial air travel. They don’t pay full price for flights. They plan months ahead and scan for ultra-cheap flights, bringing down per-seat revenue in the process. Not being frequent fliers, they are more likely to not understand screening rules, to accidentally attempt to bring banned items on flights, and more likely to raise a stink (and get arrested) when such items are confiscated. The leisure traveler may start to think the cross-country road trips of their youth are more appealing than ever. The more wealthy leisure traveler may consider charter flights, just like he takes for work. Some very small very wealthy minority may even decide to learn to fly small airplanes themselves.

Both scenarios bode ill for commercial air travel as we know it. Even the former CEO of American Airlines said the industry is in big trouble “if the system we end up with is so onerous and so difficult that air travel, while obviously more secure, becomes more trouble for the average person than it is worth.” The airlines are already in financial trouble. The “jobless recovery” is not resulting in increased demand for air travel. More smaller planes in the air is not safer than fewer large planes in the air. The only good news is that any effort to create a national air transit carrier will be met with derision.

Testing Mulligan

Don’t blink, or you might miss the fact that not only do we have teachers who cannot pass basic English proficiency tests, sometimes even their bosses fail the tests. In fact, the Superintendent of Schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts has failed the test 3 times. His excuses include lack of preparation, the fact that English is his second language, and that “nobody” looks at the rules of grammar and punctuation on a regular basis except English teachers. He went on to call the test “stupid.”

I can understand the idea that maybe the first time he took the test, he could have been blind-sided by depth of contest. That is no excuse for the second and third failures. The “ESL” tactic is an insult to anyone who came to this country and learned to speak and read the language. It should be considered an insult to anyone whose grandfather came to this country for a better life. The fact of the matter is that good English skills are the cornerstone to getting a decent job, although you would never know it to look at Mr. Laboy’s $156,560 annual salary. As for the rules of grammar and punctuation, one is forced to wonder if Mr. Laboy ever writes memos. Does he rely on a word processor to correct his grammar? I might have sympathy if he is having trouble remembering the exact formatting of a footnote according to Turabian, but I would not be surprised if the problems are more mundane. Their, there, or they’re? s or ‘s? How do you decide whether to use a colon or a semi-colon? You don’t need to be an English teacher to know these things. All things taken together, this is nothing less than an indictment of the Superintendent’s own education.

If we were hearing that a large percentage of teachers given this test were failing, we might indeed  conclude that the test was “stupid” — I mean “not a valid measurement of skills and knowledge.” But we are talking about a district with 22 schools and over a thousand teachers where a mere 24 teachers failed the test. Those sound like pretty good numbers.

Competent teachers are important. Nobody will publicly say they disagree. Unfortunately, there seems to be a difference of opinion regarding what that means. It certainly means more than “having completed educational coursework and possessing a teaching certificate.” If we are to improve the education of our children, we must start with teachers who can read and write English correctly. Our teachers should have a firm grasp of concepts and facts in other basic subjects, such as math and science. How can we set this standard without equally competent administrators?

We all know that America’s continued general prosperity hinges on people: people who can do the important research or the future; people who know how to get things done in an increasingly complicated world; people who simply know how things work. That starts with teaching our children, and that in turn depends on our schools. Do not accept incompetence. Indeed, do not even accept mediocrity.

A Tax on the Castle

This morning I picked up the newspaper and was just
shocked to see this quote in oversized letters on the front

“I am a senior and I
am on retirement (income) and Social Security, and I thought that homes, as they
got older, usually went down (in taxable

I was flabbergasted! Has
this person not noticed housing prices going up both in her neighborhood and the
nation at large, with talk of a potential housing bubble? Has she not noticed the assessment
notices from the county each year? Can she possibly not be aware that housing
prices and tax assessments have at least some passing relationship? Have we not
been told since we were old enough to pay attention that a house is not merely a dwelling, not only our
castle, it is an investment, a cornerstone of our financial
planning, a colossal tax break, and the most important asset most of us are
likely to ever possess?

A related story on the front page tells us that in
the last year “the average value of resale homes jumped an unprecedented 10
percent.” This rise is not typical, but it’s still impressive. That’s pretty
darn good in an environment where the long bond is earning less than 5% and the S&P 500 has risen about 7% in the last year.
Housing has been a bright spot in a dull economy
in many parts of the country.

considering this performance, I am of the opinion that a primary home is not
an asset and not always a good investment. I am furthermore not alone in this
opinion. The issue of whether your home is an
asset or a liability depends on many factors, some of which are unique to your
situation. Here are some issues you should consider when deciding where the
family home fits in the family

What are you
really paying?
No, not just the accepted
offer price, the amount of money you
will pay
over the term of your mortgage. If you take a 30 year
mortgage, even a low interest rate like 5.5% will leave you paying twice the
mortgage amount. Do you really think your house will be worth twice your
purchase price when the mortgage is paid off? Be honest. Before you start
shouting that all the interest you pay is all tax deductible, you should know
that is only completely true if you are not subject to AMT. Furthermore, your deduction will only save
you the amount of interest you paid
your tax rate.
Paying $12,000 and in the 28%
tax bracket? Your $12000 expense will only save you $3360. A mere $280 per
month. I certainly would not buy a bigger house just for a bigger tax

Have you considered
the incidental expenses?
Incidental expenses
include a raft of bills and hassles that come with homeownership. Many of these
things apartment dwellers only pay in an incremental, pass-through fashion
instead of a big bill. The list includes all maintenance, such as repairing
roofs, painting, replacing carpet and appliances, mucking out gutters, mowing
the lawn, keeping the water softener full of salt, checking the air
conditioning, and keeping the common areas clean. The list also includes
non-maintenance items such as property taxes, homeowner association dues,
utility bills, and even helping resolve problems with the

How does buying a
house compare to the alternatives?
If the
cost of renting the size dwelling you need is comparable to the cost of buying
in your area once you have considered incidental expenses, then buying is
probably the way to go. When this even close to the case, the mortgage interest
deduction actually does some good. Furthermore, equity is a pretty good thing.
However, don’t make yourself “house-poor,” don’t justify spending a lot more
each month to get the equity and the deduction, don’t tell yourself the house
surely will go up in value unless you have looked at the facts. Be sure to take
into account special situations, such as knowing you are going to get a job
transfer or wanting to be in a particular school district.

How important is
A house is a tough asset when it
comes to using your equity. There are really only two ways to get money out of
your primary residence: mortgage it (again) or sell it. If you mortgage it, you
have another bill and are paying more interest — depending on your equity level
and your tax status, it might not even be the deductible kind. Furthermore,
mortgage paperwork is time consuming, and there will be closing fees associated
with the new mortgage. If you sell it, you have to find a new place to live.
That is an expensive pain in the butt. If you think you may need to lay hands on
your money in a hurry, a house is not the best place to

Is this particular
house a good investment?
Is it reasonable to
think it will go up in value? How is the neighborhood doing: improving or
declining or maybe just stable? Are people in the neighborhood families planning
to stay around, or transient executives, or older people planning on moving to a
more retirement friendly area? Is the house or the neighborhood historical?
Are there some obvious improvements you could make that will increase the
house’s value? Are there tax implications beyond mortgage income deductions and
property taxes? Do not forget to consider your timeframe. Planning to live in a
house 5 years is different from planning to live in a house 20 years. Don’t
forget any value you may extract simply by living there and enjoying it. On the
other hand, do not overvalue that experience.

I am not saying you shouldn’t buy a
house. I am saying you should consider whether it is really in your best
interests to do so.