Category Archives: Finance

Disgraceful

Richmond City Hall

Richmond City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Fiscal Year 2015 in Virginia came to a close yesterday but the City of Richmond still had not filed its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for FY 2014, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The report provides an audited overview of revenues, spending, assets and debts critical to appraising a locality’s financial condition.

The City of Richmond is one of only three localities still to have failed to issue the report, the filing deadline for which was seven months ago. With a population of 218,000, Richmond is by far the most populous of the three, which includes poverty-stricken Wise County (pop. 40,000) and the town of Dumfries (pop. 5,100).

“A ten-month delay for something that should be a basic function of government is unconscionable,” said City Councilman Jonathan T. Baliles. “This is what happens when you ignore the fundamentals of government.”

City officials, reports the TD, have cited employee turnover, a lack of training and challenges in implementing a new financial system as reasons for this year’s delay. In other words, city officials blame dysfunctional management.

The problems did not materialize overnight, however. The city issued emergency procurement documents for outside help from an independent consultant to ensure timely completion of the 2013 CAFR. Payments to that consultant have risen from an anticipated $95,000 to $295,000 under  March contract extension.

Shortly thereafter, the city’s auditing firm, Cherry Bekaert, fired the city as a client. According to the TD, partner Eddie Burke cited “a high-risk, dysfunctional working environment that ‘has continually gotten worse every year.'” Ask yourself: How bad did the situation have to be for a midsize CPA firm to turn down a $320,000 annual contract?

Bacon’s bottom line: As Baliles says, balancing the books is fundamental. Add this failure to a string of other spending and administrative scandals over the past few years, and it seems pretty clear that government in Virginia’s capital city is a mess. It wasn’t always this way. Long-time residents remember when Robert C. Bobb ran the city in the 1980s as one of the most effective city managers in the country.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of one person — the mayor — to ensure that the city functions properly. While Mayor Dwight C. Jones is good at striking the right rhetorical chords on a variety of issues, he has proven ineffectual as an executive.

I admire Jones’ response to the controversy over the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, including the statues along Monument Avenue. “Rather than tearing down,” he said recently, “we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history.” Those are the words of a uniter and a healer, not a divider.

But I’m concerned that Jones doesn’t have much interest in the nuts and bolts of government. Perhaps that is understandable considering that he has divided his time between his responsibilities as mayor, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church and for a year, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. But when he does focus on his mayoral duties, instead of making sure the trains run on time, Jones has promoted high-profile projects like the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, the Washington Redskins training park and the World Road Cycling Championship.

Private investors are pouring money into the city. What most of them want to see, however, isn’t wheeling and dealing that rewards a privileged few. They want to see a city that does the things that cities are supposed to do. Like close out the books on time.

What’s the Deal with Dominion and Coal Ash?

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

By Peter Galuszka

So what’s the deal with dumping coal ash and Dominion Virginia Power?

A story in the Associated Press that is getting wide attention suggests that the utility may be consolidating five coal ash dumping ponds at its Possum Point generating plant into one that may or may not be properly lined.

If the lining is inadequate, then the coal ash which contains such dangerous chemicals as arsenic and selenium could leach into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Dominion claims it is in compliance with all current state and federal rules although stricter ones are due soon. So why not wait for final rules and bury the coal ash in a proper way? Dominion thinks that would be too expensive, critics say, and it is making its move now.

Dominion announced recently that it was closing nine coal ash ponds at Bremo Bluffs, Chesapeake, Chesterfield and Possum Point. Some of the ponds were opened in the 1940s. Bremo has converted from coal to gas, as has Possum Point. Chesapeake is closing completely.

Just to quash the potential argument, these closings were announced long before the fossil fuel industry started their “War on Coal” propaganda campaign and is doing so for cost reasons. Possum Point switched from coal in 2003.

Coal ash is messy and can be deadly. Its problems were underscored when 50,000 tons of coal ash stored by Duke in North Carolina broke free and splashed into the Dan River. That polluted rivershore into Virginia. Duke ended up with $102 million or so in fines. Virginia fined Duke a puny $2.5 million.

Richmond’s Pathetic Leadership

At the Diamond

At the Diamond

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond is going through an existential crisis. Its “leadership” can’t get anything done after wasting the public’s time and attention on the supposed possibilities of this so-called “Capital of Creativity.”

Two examples come to mind. One is the city’s and region’s utter failure to do anything about its crumbling ballpark. The other is wasting everyone’s time on pushing an independent children’s hospital and then having VCU Health and Bon Secours pull the rug out from everyone.

Mind you, you hear ramblings out the wazoo about how Richmond is all about “regionalism” and how the “River City” is just a dandy place to live. One of the worst offenders is Bacon’s Rebellion, which shamelessly crams Richmond boosterism down readers’ throats.

But what really sets me off is a full page and unabashedly revisionist editorial in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Ballpark in the Bottom? Definitely not.” The writers claim they “having listened carefully, and at great length, to all sides, we have become convinced a proposal that seemed promising at first is fatally flawed.”

Yipes! This comes after a couple years of the newspaper’s flacking Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ dubious plan to put a new $67 million stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom for the city’s Minor League AA team, the Flying Squirrels, rather than refurbishing or replacing the crumbling Diamond on the Boulevard near the strategic intersections of Interstates 64 and 95.

TD Publisher Thomas A. (TAS) Silvestri, the one-time and obviously conflicted chair of the local chamber of commerce, pushed the Shockoe idea because that was the flavor of the month with parts of the Richmond elite, including some developers, the Timmons engineering group, the Jones regime and others.

It was a bad idea from the start and had been shot down before. The Bottom has no parking and is too cramped. Even worse, it would disturb graves of slaves and other reminders of the city’s darker past such as being the nation’s No. 2 slave trading capital (this is before the “creativity” part).

The AAA Richmond Braves hated the Diamond so much that they bolted to a new stadium in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta in 2009. A new team associated with the San Francisco Giants decided to move in. The Flying Squirrels have been an outstanding success and in the five years they have been here, their team has drawn more fans than any other in the Eastern League. In fact, their stats place them among the best draws in all of minor league baseball.

But the Squirrels had been led to believe they would get new or greatly improved digs. Instead of focusing on the Diamond (which has ONE elevator for the sick and elderly and it often doesn’t work). A couple of weeks ago, Lou DiBella wrote an open letter to the community noting that nothing has happened. Their deal with the city end next year, raising the issue of whether they will bolt as the Braves did.

Squirrels owner DiBella

Squirrels owner DiBella

I did a Q&A with DiBella for Style. Here’s how he put it:

“We have been a great asset for the whole Richmond region. Where am I looking? I’m not trying to look. You want me to look, tell me. I want to create a dialogue. I want people to be honest and open and candid right now. If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves, the way Richmond did under false pretenses, and there’s no chance of any regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium — let me know now because I do have to start thinking about the future.”

He has a point. Richmond did screw around with him. Chesterfield and Henrico Counties did, too. The Squirrels get most of their spectators from the suburbs but their political leaders don’t want to spend anything to help. They neatly got off the hook when they conveyed the Diamond from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, of which they are members, to the city exclusively.

The Jones administration, meanwhile, wasted everyone’s time (except that of the Richmond Times-Dispatch) by pushing the Bottom idea. The business elite sponsored trips for so-called local leaders to fly around the country and look at other stadiums.

Then, nothing. A development firm called the Rebkee Co. came up with a plan to build a new stadium near the Diamond with private funds. But the city refused to even review the plan. They did not accept formal written copies of the idea.

The Jones team did manage to come up with a summer practice area for the Washington Redskins that is used about two or three weeks a year. It hardly draws anything close to what the Squirrels do, but they had little problem pushing with their idea.

Bill Goodwin

Bill Goodwin

Next up is a stand-alone children’s hospital, an idea backed by a group of pediatricians and Bill Goodwin, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the most powerful men in Richmond. He and his wife pledged $150 million for the project and many, including the RTD, talked about it to death. Goodwin’s idea would be to create a world class hospital on the level of the famous Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia.

Then, without warning, non-profits VCU and Bon Secours health system pulled the rug out from under Goodwin and everyone else. They said an independent children’s hospital wasn’t needed, there was no market for it and pediatric care is moving more towards out-patient service, anyway.

The real reason, says Goodwin, is that a stand-alone children’s hospital would mean that other local hospitals would have to scale back their money-making pediatric units.

Also for Style, I asked Goodwin for his thoughts. He was flabbergasted at shutting down the idea without warning. He said:

“We were planning for an independent children’s hospital that was regional and would provide more comprehensive coverage than what VCU and Bon Secours are currently providing. This effort would have been a heck of an economic driver for our community and would provide significantly better medical care for children. Better medical education and research were also planned. We would be creating something that was creating good jobs, and it would be something that the community would be proud of, which we haven’t had recently.”

So there you have it, sports fans – a moment of truth. With its current leadership, Richmond couldn’t strike water if it fell out of a boat. You know it when the editorial writers on Franklin Street start revising history.

“Spankdown” at Woodlake

S&MBy Peter Galuszka

Homeowners Associations are double-edged swords. They can preserve home values by enforcing covenants but sometimes  morph into Neo-Nazi privatized governments that make life miserable by meddling.

One HOA in suburban Richmond is in something of a unique situation.

Woodlake, a 2,800 home, 1980s-styled PUD in Chesterfield County, has been having problems. The realty firm that owned its extensive swim and recreational facilities sold them to the HOA in 2010 which ended up $700,000 in debt.

It has caused lots of gnashing of teeth because no one wants a special assessment. I don’t live there but I play tennis there and hear a lot about it from my friends.

The board is new, the old community manager left and they hired a new manager who has an extensive professional background in the field.

The manager, Bethany Halle, also has another life. She’s the author of about 70 erotic fantasies specializing sado-masochism, bondage and other delights, including ones involving the paranormal. She enjoys exploring “murder and mayhem” at HOAs in her literary life.

Here’s my story about it in the Chesterfield Observer.

Halle’s books have been published by such houses as “Naughty Nights.” She blogs and has radio shows about erotic literature. The HOA board supports their decision to hire her , saying they knew about her other life but she was the best qualified to run the HOA.

Halle writes under her own name or “Cassandre Dayne” and “Dakotah Black”

One of her titles is “Spankdown.” Maybe that’s just what Woodlake needs.

Dubious Oil Lobby Bankrolls Dubious Poll

CEABy Peter Galuszka

In a recent post, Bacons Rebellion extolled the findings of Hickman Analytics Inc., a suburban Washington consulting firm hired by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which found that according to a survey of 500 registered voters, the vast majority of Virginians support Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The $5 billion project would take natural gas released by hydraulic fracturing from West Virginia southeastward through Virginia into North Carolina. Dominion has taken some strong-arm tactics to force the project through, such as suing property owners who declined to let surveyors onto their property.

Having reported on the controversy in such places as Nelson County, I was surprised to note the Hickman results showing such a strong support for the pipeline.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Let’s start with the so-called “Consumer Energy Alliance.” For starters, it is a Texas based lobbying group funded by such fossil fuel giants as ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, perhaps the largest independent oil rim in the country plus as host of utilities.

It has been traversing the United States drumming up support, often through dubious polls, against initiatives to cut back on carbon emissions. It supports the Keystone XL and other petroleum pipelines.

Says SourceWatch, quoting Salon.com, “The CEA is part of a sophisticated public affairs strategy designed to manipulate the U.S. political system by deluging the media with messaging favorable to the tar-sands industry; to persuade key state and federal legislators to act in the extractive industries’ favor; and to defeat any attempt to regulate the carbon emissions emanating from gasoline and diesel used by U.S. vehicles.”

The group was created in the late 2000s by Michael Whatley a Republican energy lobbyist with links to the Canadian and American oil sector.

The alliance’s modus operandi is to use “polls” presumably of average voters on key energy issues.

In Wisconsin, the CEA got involved in a battle over an attempt by electric utilities to hike rates if individual homeowners used solar panels to generate power. The state is dominated by coal-fired power and hasn’t done much with renewables. The utilities claim that they paid for the electricity grid and therefore home-power generators must pay extra for its use and the cost should be shared by all through rate hikes.

Many ratepayers opposed this blatant attempt to push back at solar power. Then, all the way from Texas and Washington, the Consumer Energy Alliance jumped in with the names of 2,500 local ratepayers who backed the rate hikes. It wanted to give their names to Wisconsin regulators.

The Grist asked: “What dog does CEA, a trade group from Texas, have in Wisconsin’s fight, anyway? Well, CEA represents the interests of mostly fossil fuel companies, so it is engaged in a nationwide campaign to slow the spread of home-produced renewable energy. It has a regional Midwest chapter, which pushes for fracking and for President Obama to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.”

I was likewise puzzled by the Virginia pipeline survey that CEA paid for by Hickman Analytics, a Chevy Chase, Md. firm that does a lot of political polling. The firm is powerful and its principals were heavily involved with disgraced Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There was a poll by Hickman for CEA showing that New Hampshire vote just love Arctic offshore drilling. That’s off because the Granite State isn’t anywhere close to the Arctic despite its cold winters.

There was another Hickman/CEA poll showing how much Coloradans love the Keystone XL pipeline – another curiosity because the last time I checked that pipeline doesn’t run through Colorado.

And, fresh with a “five figure” sponsorship from Dominion, Bacon’s Rebellion publisher James A. Bacon Jr. starts writing about this dubious poll from a dubious source showing that Virginians are tickled pink with the ACL pipeline. When questioned, he says it’s nothing different from a poll funded by the Sierra Club.

Maybe, on another matter, it is curious that Bacon’s Rebellion’s sponsorship deal with Dominion which Jim posted online is signed by Daniel A. Weekley, vice president for Dominion corporate affairs.

The very same Mr. Weekley signed an informational packet sent out to Virginia homeowners impacted by the proposed pipeline route telling them what a great thing the pipeline is.

Am I connecting the dots correctly?
 

The Volcker Alliance Appraises Virginia’s Budget

virginia_finances

Source: “Truth and Integrity in State Government”

by James A. Bacon

Critics of Virginia’s state constitution often point to the one-term limit for governors as a source of dysfunctional governance. The state’s chief executives have little time to put their imprint on policy and the budget before they’re gone. But it is precisely that term limit — and the resulting shifting of budgeting power to professional budget and finance officials — that the Volcker Alliance points to as a strength of Virginia’s budgeting process.

“Professional budget and finance officials in Virginia tend to last through multiple administrations, while governors are barred by the state constitution from serving a second consecutive four-year term and thus have relatively limited influence over the biennial budget cycle,” states the Volcker Alliance report, “Truth and Integrity in State Budgeting.” As a consequence, the report summarizes, Virginia has a budgetary policy “that is more administrative than political.”

The Volcker Alliance, launched in 2013 by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, praises Virginia’s budget process overall, although it does note some areas where it could stand improvement. The study provides an in-depth look at the budgets of California, New Jersey and Virginia as part of an ongoing effort to shine a light on opaque and confusing budget practices and encourage best budgeting practices. Among the study’s main observations of the Virginia budget:

Revenue forecasting. Revenue forecasting is a strength of the Virginia budget. Forecasts are based upon input from the Joint Advisory Board of Economists and from the Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates, two statutorily established panels. “While the practice does not guarantee more-accurate forecasts,” the study states, “its wide range of inputs allows political leaders to focus more on the debate about expenditures than on a debate about the level of revenue.”

In actual practice, the  forecasts missed the downturn in state income tax revenues stemming from a downturn in capital gains income when president George W. Bush’s tax cuts expired in 2012. But the system recovered fairly quickly.

Either because it was late in the budget process or because the governor was unwilling to re-estimate revenue by year-end, the fiscal 2015-2016 biennial budget was not adjusted downward for $1.55 billion in diminished revenue expectations ($950 million in 2015 and $600 million in 2016). Still, the so-called money committees — House Appropriations and Senate Finance — subsequently adjusted appropriations to address the expected shortfall. Their actions included zeroing out most discretionary spending increases and preparing to tap the Revenue Stabilization Fund, the state’s rainy day fund, if needed.

Borrowing. Maintaining Virginia’s AAA credit rating imposes a “powerful discipline” on policy makers. “Total borrowing is limited by how much the state has received in the last three years from income and sales taxes. Virginia avoids using bond premiums for its general fund; leaders instead use the proceeds to reduce borrowing.”

Transferring revenues and costs. Not so admirable was Virginia’s use of an accelerated sales tax program in 2009 that obligated many businesses to prepay a year of expected levies — an initiative the state has yet to fully reverse. The state also allows for transferring costs from one fiscal year to the next within the biennium.

Pension funding. While Virginia fell way behind it its pension funding, it has been aggressive in recent years to restore the Virginia Retirement System to fiscal health.

The pension is underfunded compared with other states, with actuarial assets only 65% of liabilities in fiscal 2013 — the legacy of years of underfunding. Wilshire Consulting estimates that the funding ratio for state funding plans nationwide was 75 percent in 2013, up from 72% in 2012. (By 2014, the estimate of the funding ratio had risen to 80 percent.)

While Virginia has historically not paid the full amount that actuaries recommend for the annual contribution, it is moving toward full annual funding. The General Assembly has put itself on a schedule to increase funding each year until it hits 100 percent of the recommended contribution in fiscal 2019.

Continue reading

Who Are the Real Fiscal Conservatives?

Source: "Truth and Integrity  in State Budgeting"

Source: “Truth and Integrity in State Budgeting”

Paul Volcker is one of the real heroes of the modern economic profession. During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s he conquered the “Great Inflation” by taming the growth of the money supply. Interest rates rose to levels unprecedented in modern American history. During my time in charge of cash management at AIG, I bought and sold money market securities yielding 20%; today similar instruments yield less than 1%. His efforts led to President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” and a renewed attention to monetary policy. His success, as painful as it was,  gives him lots of “street cred.”

The Volcker Alliance recently published an analysis of the budgets in three states:  California, Virginia, and New Jersey.  The results will be surprising to many.  He gives kudos to California and Virginia, and holds a dim view of New Jersey, home of Republican presidential wanne-be, Chris Christie.

Standing alone, California would be the world’s eighth biggest economy with domestic output equaling US$2.1 trillion. Under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, the Golden State’s credit ratings have been raised multiple times by the rating agencies.  Under his leadership,  voters have approved some temporary tax hikes, increasing budget reserves and improved funding for pension liabilities of teachers and other government employees.  According to Volcker, California’s outstanding debt has been reduced by approximately US$10 billion in three years.

The Old Dominion comes in for praise by the former Fed Chairman.  In an interesting comment he states that the budget professionals in Richmond serve for many years while the Governor is restricted to one 4-year term.  Budget cycle planning, which takes as long as 6 years, removes some of the politics out of Virginia’s budget process.  Virginia’s unfunded pension liability of US$ 3,436 per employee is only a few dollars more than that of the Golden State.

New Jersey, home of Gov Christie, leaves much to be desired according to the former Fed Chairman.  Volcker’s analysis paints a messy picture of the Garden State’s fiscal condition.  Volcker lists myriad accounting and financial tricks that have been employed to balance the home of the Jersey Boys: these do include not using the proceeds of bond sales for their stated purposes.  Frequent use of non-recurring revenues for operating purposes.  And diverting tolls from the turnpike from their stated use to maintain that highway.

It is a shame that Volcker did not include Kansas in his analysis.  Governor Sam Brownback, a Tea Party favorite, has enacted a budget cutting, tax reducing program that only a “fauxconomist” like David Bratt would endorse.  The budget deficit has ballooned, school systems in some detracts have closed early due to lack of funding, and a liberal website reports today that the Kansas Gov has threatened to cut off funding for the judicial system if it does not rule in his favor should a court challenge arise to his policies.

— D. Leslie Schreiber

Layne’s Law

Map credit: VDOT

Proposed Interstate 66 improvements. Map credit: VDOT

by James A. Bacon

After spending a year and a half cleaning up the mess left by the previous administration — the Charlottesville Bypass, Norfolk’s Midtown-Downtown Tunnel, the U.S. 460 Connector in Tidewater — Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne now has the opportunity to show whether or not he has the chops to handle a complex, politically charged transportation mega-project — the $2.1 billion in proposed improvements to Interstate 66 west of the Capital Beltway.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is focusing on two key dimensions to the mega-project, which is intended to address one of the most congested traffic corridors in Northern Virginia. The first is engineering. VDOT engineers have conceptualized a plan to build a corridor that will include three free lanes running both directions, two express lanes in each direction and high-frequency bus service  linking commuters with major activity centers. That plan will be subject to extensive environmental review and public input.

The second key question is how the state will finance and manage the project. Should VDOT use the controversial public-private partnership (P3) legal/financial structure to build and operate the project, much as it did with the Interstate 495 and Interstate 95 Express Lanes projects? Should VDOT undertake the project entirely on its own? Or should it create a hybrid approach? The question assumes tremendous urgency given the problems created by the P3 approach with the Norfolk-Portsmouth tunnels and the U.S.460 Connector.

Parenthetically, I would add that there is a critical third dimension to the project which appears to be getting less attention: What will be the impact of the project on Northern Virginia land use patterns? Will the project subsidize suburban sprawl (scattered, disconnected, low-density land use patterns) in the far western reaches of the Washington metropolitan area, which in turn will generate more demand — and more congestion — in the years ahead? In other words, will the state spend more than $2 billion to “fix” a problem that will re-emerge a decade or two after the project is completed?

In an interview yesterday, I sat down with Layne to discuss the financial dimension of the project. The transportation secretary has given enormous thought on how best to structure highway mega-projects, balancing the twin imperatives of controlling costs and limiting risk.

Layne sees transportation projects as forming a continuum between a model in which VDOT does everything, and a privatization model in which all functions are delegated to a private-sector concessionaire through an asset sale or a long-term lease. Any project is comprised of several parts:

Design
Construction
Financing
Operation
Maintenance

Any one of these pieces can be performed by the state or out-sourced to the private sector. In Layne’s view, because no two projects are identical, there is no standard configuration. He tends to think that the private sector does a better job of designing and managing construction than VDOT, but not by such a wide margin that jobs should automatically default to private players. In other areas, VDOT has a clear advantage. The fact that VDOT can tap tax-free bonds, which sell at lower interest rates, and requires no private equity financing often means that the state can finance a project at less expense than a private entity.

But there is more to managing a project than driving for the lowest cost or, as the previous administration tended to do, the lowest up-front public subsidy. Costs should be viewed over the lifetime of the project, which runs 50 years or longer, after adjusted for risk. One risk is the potential for cost overruns. In the past, VDOT used to eat construction cost overruns, which meant that the taxpayer paid. But that risk, says Layne, usually should be transferred to the private contractor. Another risk is that toll revenues might not materialize as forecast. Private entities pay especially close attention to that risk, and they try to negotiate all manner of protections into a P3 project to offset it.

Express lane projects get tricky because a private entity is motivated to maximize toll-paying traffic through its tolled lanes in order to maximize revenue, while the state’s goal is to maximize the throughput of riders, which means encouraging High Occupancy Vehicles and buses. In its negotiations over Interstate 95, the original plan called for Transurban to make a $250 million up-front investment to provide a robust mass-transit component. But as the negotiations proceeded, the mass-transit piece got whittled down drastically. If High Occupancy Vehicles exceed 24% of total traffic on I-495 (35% on I-95), the state is obligated to pay 70% of Transurban’s lost revenue. Meanwhile, the state pays for mass transit on I-95 out of its own funds — an expense that was not included in the announced project cost.

Layne’s Law is to start by first defining what the state wants in a project, and only ascertaining which mix of functions it should outsource to the private sector. “I’d love to have a private-sector partner,” Layne says, “but only if the risk transfer makes sense.” In the case of I-66, bargaining away a robust mass-transit capability to protect a private entity’s revenue stream probably would not make sense. Continue reading

Federal Bailouts and the Buildup of Risk

bailout_barometer

Graphic credit: Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

by James A. Bacon

The federal government plays a much bigger role in shaping the United States economy than is evident in its taxing and spending policies. Uncle Sam funnels credit to favored constituencies through subsidized credit programs like TIFIA transportation loans and the Import-Export bank as well as by protecting lenders from losses due to a borrower’s default. Members of Congress are exercised, as well they ought to be, by the dispensing of subsidized credits to corporate interests. But loan guarantees have a far bigger impact — and expose the federal government, and the U.S. economy — to far greater risk.

Sixty percent of the U.S. financial system’s loans are explicitly or implicitly backed by the federal government, the Federal Reserve Board of Richmond has found in its updated Bailout Barometer. That’s up from roughly 45% as recently as 1999.

The capitalist financial system is inherently prone to booms and busts. Busts lead to corporate failures, and big corporate failures can trigger panics, in which even financially sound firms get caught in the undertow. The U.S. has sought to alleviate this pain by providing loan guarantees. Some guarantees are self-financing, such as federal insurance on bank deposits. Other guarantees are policed by regulators, and yet others are implied but ambiguous and not spelled out in advance. But the end result is that actors in the financial system adjust their behavior — taking on more risk than they would otherwise — in ways that could create new, bigger problems in the future. As the Richmond Fed explains:

Implicit guarantees effectively subsidize risk. Investors in implicitly protected markets feel little need to demand higher yields to compensate for the risk of loss. Implicitly protected funding sources are therefore cheaper, causing market participants to rely more heavily on them. At the same time, risk is more likely to accumulate in protected areas since market participants are less likely to prepare for the possibility of distress — for example, by holding adequate capital to cushion against losses, or by building safeguarding features into contracts — and creditors are less likely to monitor their activities. This is the so-called “moral hazard” problem of the financial safety net: The expectation of government support weakens the private sector’s ability and willingness to limit risk, resulting in excessive risk-taking. …

The Richmond Fed’s view is that the moral hazard from the [Too Big To Fail] problem is pervasive in our financial system. The U.S. government’s history of market interventions — from the bailout of Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company in 1984 to the public concerns raised during the Long-Term Capital Management crisis in 1998 — shaped market participants’ expectations of official support leading up to the events of 2007-08. According to Richmond Fed estimates, the proportion of total U.S. financial firms’ liabilities covered by the federal financial safety net has increased by one-third since our first estimate in 1999. The safety net covered 60 percent of financial sector liabilities as of 2013. More than 40 percent of that support is implicit and ambiguous.

Bacon’s bottom line: While the current financial regime did alleviate the pain of the 2007 market collapse, the system could be allowing even bigger risks to build up. Like generals fighting the last war, regulators are fighting the last panic. The new risks will not be the same as the old ones, and we won’t know what they are until they explode in the next financial debacle. But spurred by the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policies, investors are chasing higher returns by taking greater risks, and financial markets are concocting elaborate new financial instruments to circumvent the regulators.

The global derivatives market was calculated in 2013 to be roughly $1.2 quadrillion in notional value, or about 20 times the global economy. Admittedly, most of that is tied to interest rates, currency values and stock indexes, not the economic sectors guaranteed by the federal government. But it illustrates how arcane financial instruments can magnify or hedge risks in ways we mere mortals — and government bureaucrats earning low, six-figure salaries — can barely comprehend.

I don’t know what will trigger the next financial crisis. Most likely, it will come from a quarter that most people would never expect. I don’t know when it will come. But the history of capitalism since the South Sea Bubble of 1720 suggests that one will come along eventually. If a bunch of multibillionaire hedge fund managers lose multibillion dollar bets and wind up selling apples on the street, I will lose no sleep. But if those hedge fund multibillionaires’ losses are back-stopped by federal loan guarantees, effectively socializing their losses, I will have a deep and abiding rage.

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.