Category Archives: Uncategorized

The 5,000-Year Sovereign Debt Bubble

maelstromby James A. Bacon

Every financial bubble has its own unique characteristics. The late-1980s Savings & Loan Bubble was restricted mainly to anachronistic savings & loans institutions. The Internet bubble was limited mainly to tech stocks. The real estate bubble was tied mainly to mortgage finance. The common thread is that in each case, the powers that be convinced themselves that “this time it’s different” — and ridiculed the warnings of the doom sayers. Now we find ourselves in the midst of the sovereign debt bubble, the largest financial bubble in human history, and the story is the same. The experts tell us that everything is just fine and lampoon the critics as cranks and gold bugs.

This bubble is not limited to the United States. Indeed, other economies such as Japan, China and the European Union have been pushing the experiment of covering massive debts with massive credit creation even more aggressively than our own Federal Reserve Bank. But when the bubble bursts and the dominoes start toppling, they’ll eventually reach the United States. In a global economy, everyone is connected to everyone else in ways that are not always visible to policy makers.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, James Freeman notes that there is no evidence in 5,000 years of recorded history of negative interest rates. Such rates are an innovation of modern central banks, and they take the world into uncharted territory. Writes Freeman:

However it ends, the deflating of the sovereign debt bubble may have us longing for the carefree days of the 2008 mortgage crisis. Internationally traded bonds amount to nearly $60 trillion, according to the Institute of International Finance. That’s about six times the mortgage debt outstanding for American homeowners. But those sovereign bonds are a mere fraction of the liabilities carried by the world’s governments. If you count political promises to support retirees, patients and others, the obligations are hundreds of trillions of dollars higher. …

The sovereign debt boom certainly has its share of liar loans. European countries routinely violate pledges to limit larger budget deficits. As for documentation, has anyone found a thorough and comprehensible description of government accounting?

And then there’s China, arguably in a league all its own when it comes to financial opacity. I suspect China is one big Enron, kept afloat by unfounded confidence in its financial integrity. When that confidence starts eroding, watch out. The financial collapse will be spectacular, and China’s economy is big enough to send shock waves around the world.

It’s impossible to predict how the global debt bubble will play out. In the early stages, the U.S. actually might benefit as capital flees to safe havens. Insofar as the dollar is regarded as less un-safe than other currencies, U.S. Treasuries might stay strong. But the unwinding of the global sovereign debt bubble will be unpredictable, creating wreckage in ways that no one today can imagine. There will be secondary and tertiary effects as nation states pursue protectionist policies to blunt the damage.

Many readers are confident, no doubt, that the “experts” who didn’t foresee the real estate crisis know what they’re doing this time. And perhaps, after 5,000 years of recorded human history, we finally have perfected a fiscal-monetary perpetual motion machine that allows us to spend and borrow without negative consequence.

If you don’t believe that fairy tale, however, the only sane course for Virginians is to pursue is a contrarian policy of eschewing debt, building reserves and strengthening the balance sheets of governments and public institutions in preparation for the travails to come. That’s why I obsess over the Virginia Retirement System pension crisis, the Petersburg fiscal meltdown, the decaying finances of other small jurisdictions, the unsustainable increase in college costs and the exposure of higher-ed institutions to declining enrollments, land use policies that drive up the costs of utilities and public services, the overbuilding of transportation infrastructure that governments cannot afford to properly maintain, and the mal-investment of public dollars in futile economic development projects. We are part of the global problem. I don’t want Virginia to be part of the global calamity.

How to Cut UVa Tuition 74% without Really Trying

Helen Dragas

Helen Dragas

by James A. Bacon

Helen Dragas, former rector of the University of Virginia, tried yesterday in op-eds published in the Roanoke Times and Daily Progress to jump-start a conversation about how to dispose of roughly $100 million a year income from a $2.3 billion “Strategic Investment Fund” cobbled together from various sources.

That conversation never occurred in the full Board of Visitors because, Dragas charged, university officials had shepherded a series of actions creating the fund without completely explaining its real purpose. Only after the fact did she come to understand that the estimated $100 million a year was to be used primarily to hire faculty, build labs, promote research and otherwise advance the prestige and reputation of the university — and that was in her last few days as a board member. And when the full board was invited to discuss the university’s plans for the money, it was in a closed meeting the legality of which Dragas has questioned.

Here are proposals that Dragas outlined in her op-eds:

  • Roll back tuition by 74% for in-state students, saving about $5,500 a year of $22,000 for a four-year degree. That would still leave between $40 million and $100 million a year to dedicated to university advancement.
  • Freeze tuition for five years by cutting non-classroom spending.
  • Reduce the $67 million a year spend on financial awards to out-of-state students. With 21,000 applications for 1,200 out-of-state, first-year spots, subsidies are unnecessary.
  • Cut administrative salaries. University staff is overloaded with highly paid administrators. One assistant to a secretary earns roughly $115,000 a year (equivalent to nine student tuitions).
  • Control construction costs. “Excessive costs of almost $1,000 per square foot for a medical center waiting room and $425 per square foot for a maintenance building help explain why cash flow from depreciation has fed the surpluses over time.”
  • Rationalize fund-raising efforts. The university has more than 20 related foundations whose combined activities reportedly cost it more than three times the national non-profit average per dollar raised.

Finally, Dragas proposes:

Virginians interested in mission-centered, efficiently run state institutions should engage a team of the brightest MBA candidates to audit the university’s spending. These objective young minds would earn a stipend, gain valuable experience, and play a meaningful role in keeping UVa excellence affordable for the next several generations.”

Oh, and by the way, the work of the student audit teams would be completely transparent. “That way, board members, administrators, other students and taxpayers could all benefit from their insights and example.”

Richmond Outsources Alternative School to Private Firm

Richmond Alternative School

Richmond Alternative School

by James A. Bacon

Maybe there’s hope for the Richmond city school system after all. The School Board has approved a contract to outsource the education of students with disciplinary issues to a private company, Camelot Education.

Under the contract, Camelot will take over operation of the Richmond Alternative school, which serves students who have been pulled out of their home school because they are too disruptive, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The contract should be a good deal for taxpayers. The city will pay Camelot $1.8 million for the upcoming school year, supplemented by $800,000 for city support staff. That’s less than the $2.9 million the city had budgeted to operate Richmond Alternative.

More importantly, school officials hope that Camelot will do a better job of educating the problem students. Test scores at the school have been stagnant or dropped in the past three years, and the number of dropouts showed a “significant uptick.”

Explained Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent of exceptional education and student services:

Camelot will staff the school with people licensed in specific content areas, who are trained in behavior modification and de-escalation techniques and who are experienced at working in nontraditional environments.

Key to Camelot’s success, most notably in the Philadelphia school system, is the emphasis on creating a of norms geared to students with disciplinary issues. These behavioral expectations, sustained by peer pressure among staff and students, include:

  • No one has the right to hurt another person.
  • Education and the classroom are sacred.
  • Never behave in any way that will discredit yourselves, your family, your peers, or your school.
  • Take pride in your school.
  • A Camelot student is always a lady or gentleman.

What worked in Philadelphia may or may not work in Richmond. But surely that is a risk worth taking. The existing system was not working. If the Camelot contract was structured properly, it will set clear performance metrics — reduced absenteeism, higher graduation rates, etc. — for the organization to achieve. If Camelot succeeds, then everybody wins. If it falls short, then Richmond can always find another vendor or put its own team back in place.

The House that Bacon Built

Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

The Gwaltney mansion in Smithfield, built by pork and bacon magnate P.D. Gwaltney Jr., is up for auction after staying within the family for 115 years. The building has been on sale on and off for several years. Latest asking price: $940,000. The Virginian-Pilot has the story here.

RVA Snapshot: Nice Vision, but the Devil’s in the Details

rva_snapshotby James A. Bacon

The Capital Region Collaborative, a not-for-profit dedicated to building a more livable, prosperous Richmond region, has just published RVA Snapshot, a set of metrics that compares Richmond to six peer metros of comparable size. The accompanying commentary summarizes the conventional wisdom regarding the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and articulates a “shared vision” for the future.

I find the aspirations particularly interesting, as they express the values of the business, political and civic leaders who influence how the region allocates resources to advance the public good.

Education: The region ensures that every child graduates from high school college or career ready.

Job creation: The region enjoys a diverse economy that is competitive in the global marketplace and provides job opportunities for all.

Workforce preparation: The region aligns workforce skills to employer needs.

Social stability: The region embraces our social diversity as a strong community asset and supports a community where all residents have the opportunity to succeed.

Healthy community: The region transforms into a metro area known for an active lifestyle.

Coordinated transportation: The region maintains its status as one of the most uncongested transportation networks in the country while supporting all modes of transportation.

James River: The region will make the James River a centerpiece for entertainment, recreation, and commerce.

Quality of place: The region is the most appealing and attractive destination for arts, culture and entertainment on the East Coast.

By necessity, these aspirations are watered down to appeal to a broad cross section of the population. It’s hard even for a curmudgeon like me to take exception to any of them. The tricky part is figuring out which tangible actions will advance these goals. And that often boils down to political philosophy — what role should government play? To what extent does the community achieve its goals by taxing, spending and regulating, and to what extent does it rely upon voluntary, bottom-up initiatives?

Needless to say, I favor voluntary, bottom-up initiatives. For example, the Capital Area Farmer Markets Association is creating a food guide listing all restaurants, farms, grocers, markets and other businesses where consumers can purchase local food. I doubt I’ll go out of my way to patronize these establishments, but if other people do, that’s great! I’m all for increasing consumer choices.

I’m less excited by the uncritical emphasis on public transit, which the document kinda, sorta endorses by noting that the Richmond region is 8th lowest ranked among its peers with regard to transit coverage and job access. That may be true, and creating affordable transportation options for the public may be desirable, but expanding mass transit is not a win-win proposition, it’s a win-lose. Money is involuntarily transferred from one group of people (taxpayers) to another group of people (transit riders), usually with little regard to economic efficiency or emerging transportation alternatives.

Regardless, all the right-thinking people in Richmond are lining up behind Richmond’s proposed bus rapid transit system. I have yet to see a discussion of appropriate land uses along the bus corridor or streetscape improvements needed to make the corridor more hospitable for passengers walking from the stations to their destination. Nor has anyone considered how the Uber revolution might be extended to privately operated vans and buses as a way to provide affordable transportation access to the poor. Having dealt with none of these issues, the City of Richmond will incur a long-term obligation to continue operating a money-losing service.

Which brings me to my final point: RVA Snapshot gives no consideration to the long-term fiscal health of local governments in the region. Apparently, is it assumed that AAA and AA bond ratings are a birthright that require no special attention. Trouble is, local governments are hard-pressed to maintain the services at current tax rates without expanding their commitments and setting themselves up for future failure. Sound finances are the bedrock of any community’s long-term prosperity. I would add the following aspiration:

Fiscal health: The region embraces sound fiscal practices that support the ability of local governments to maintain competitive tax rates and pursue excellence in core functions over the long run.

Another Disrupter…

On the horizon… all-weather solar cells.

What will that do to the economics of the electric grid — and will we be prepared for it?

Disrupting Education and Health Care

steve_case

Steve Case

by James A. Bacon

Education and health care are the two most moribund economic sectors in the U.S. economy, plagued by lagging productivity and poor outcomes. Not coincidentally, both sectors are joined at the hip with government. Democrats are determined to preserve the status quo, while Republicans offer no clear market-based alternative. Is there any reason to think anything will change?

Steve Case, the legendary co-founder of AOL who now runs investment firm Revolution LLC, thinks that a “third wave” of Internet innovation will transform both sectors from the bottom up. He writes the following in the Wall Street Journal today:

While the presidential candidates discuss the merits of abolishing or expanding the federal Education Department, entrepreneurs are revolutionizing how instructors teach and students learn. Venture capitalists see what’s coming. Funding for EdTech startups hit $1.85 billion last year, according to EdSurge, up from $360 million in 2010. Former teachers are leading companies that are unleashing—finally—personalized and adaptive learning. While the pundits debate education policy, the innovators are in the trenches improving classrooms all across the country.

Or look at health care. As the candidates pitch plans to abolish or build on the Affordable Care Act, the real action to improve America’s medical system is coming from entrepreneurs. They are inventing better ways to keep us healthy, and smarter ways to treat us when we get sick. The revolution in health care is being led by the innovators who are working tirelessly to improve outcomes, enhance convenience and lower costs. And again, investors sense this: Last year health care companies raised a record $16.1 billion in venture capital, this newspaper reported, an increase from 2014 of 34%.

But there is no divorcing government from the process, argues Case.

Third Wave innovators … won’t be able to go it alone; they’ll need to go together. They’ll need to engage with governments, as regulators and often as customers. And they’ll need to recognize that revolutions often happen in evolutionary ways. Success will require many alliances, as well as constructive dialogue with regulators.

This entrepreneurial revolution offers Virginians an alternative to the stale and polarized alternatives of the past. Virginia may or may not be where these new companies originate and create product-development, back-office and headquarters jobs. But our approach to public policy will influence where these entrepreneurs do business first. The more flexible and open we are, the greater the likelihood of attracting investment and re-energizing our education and health-care sectors. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Will we take it or squander it?