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The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is pretty clear about how it wants state or local governments to report Net Pension Liability. As stipulated by its Statement 68,  on the face of the financial statements, not buried in the morass of footnotes.

But the City of Los Angeles did not read the memo.

A quick survey of the Comprehensive  Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) of a few major cities – New York, Seattle and San Francisco – show compliance.

There are probably a few, besides Los Angeles, who have failed to do so, but weak oversight by GASB is a prescription for sloppiness.

There is no shortage of other professional or authoritative materials on the subject, for example, articles published by the AICPA, such as this government brief.

This is also the second year in a row where the liability was not reported on the face of the financial statements. … and the pronouncement has only been in effect for two years! Although the required footnote disclosures were included, footnotes amplify the contents of the standard accounting reports; they are not a substitute.

Before I go any further, why is this even important?

Analysts, accountants and numbers geeks will know to dive into the footnotes, so who cares if it is not staring at the users on the face of the balance sheet, or statement of net position, as it is also called?

As GASB and others have clearly stated, it is about transparency.

As residents, we are the most important recipients of the city’s financial statements.  We live here and bear the consequences of our elected officials’ decision-making; the financial effects of which are imparted in the CAFR. Even though only a fraction of the residents bother cracking open the CAFR, and those that do rarely get into the footnotes, there is an obligation to provide complete disclosure.  Anything less is implicitly misleading and a disservice.

I would not be as irritated or concerned if this had not occurred before, but suspect political pressure is behind not reporting the NPL as evidently as it should. And that rankles me more…as it should you!

Most of our officials depend on the support of the public unions to fund their campaigns. In return, they receive generous retirement benefits that come at a high cost to the residents of the city.  Shining the light on the $7 billion net liability that has been incurred to support these plans is not in their best interests. It’s much safer to bury it in a line with other long-term liabilities. Doing so does not invite questions.

The NPL is over 50% of the total long-term liability in the governmental activities segment.  It cries out for the specific recognition GASB 68 mandates.

To make matters worse, the footnotes downplay its significance by stating it is not, by itself, evidence of economic or financial difficulties.

Tell that to the city of Richmond, CA, which faces the prospects of bankruptcy.  Its residents are already feeling the impact of diminished services, the result of diverting more of the budget to pay for pensions. Add San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo to the list, too.  Others will follow.

In Los Angeles, we cannot afford to increase the police budget to deal with the rising crime rate.

So while our officials avoid the subject, we will pay more for less service.  That’s the city’s plan to deal with the problem.

The City Controller is in a position to educate the public about the dangers of ignoring this bleak prospect. Ron Galperin has the wherewithal and the standing to heighten awareness, but if he is not willing to at least give it the basic recognition it warrants on the face of the balance sheet, where it is more visible, then it is unlikely to get any attention at City Hall.

Galperin has not shied away from auditing waste and abuse, however unpopular that has been among some powerful forces. He is still the most effective City Controller we’ve had, but he must lead the charge to fight the pension cancer, which is consuming our city from the inside.

The NPL is the tip of an iceberg.  Pretending it is not there will only run the city into the rest of it.

Commander-in-Tweet

By the time this article is published,  either the most awaited or unawaited presidency, depending on your point of view, will have begun.

Trump’s loyal supporters believe he will initiate sweeping, long-overdue changes; his most ardent detractors fear he will take us down the road to fascism.

For certain, we are in for a wild ride, but I do not believe President Trump (can’t believe I am typing those two words together) will be able to wave a magic wand and have his way across the board. This is a guy who did not have a majority of his own party behind him.  His victory was more about the other candidate’s problems.

A Washington Post/ABC poll showed his favorability rating on the eve of taking office as 40%.  That does not signal a honeymoon; an impending divorce is more like it, a nasty one at that.

Without a broad consensus behind him, Congress will not rubber-stamp much of Trump’s agenda, assuming he really has one other than poorly defined tweeting points.

So one should not expect broad support for any of his plans beyond the selection of a new Supreme Court judge. That’s a big one, but the High Court has always ebbed and flowed between conservative and liberal influence.  It’s been that way for a few decades. There’s always a wild card, too, like Justice Kennedy. Let’s not forget that Chief Justice Roberts saved Obamacare. You just never know.

I anticipate we will have a balanced court, unless one of the liberal judges retires during Trump’s term. It is unlikely any of them will retire during a first term.  It would take a Scalia-type departure for another vacancy on the left side of the bench.

What about a wall across our southern border?

I think you might see some segments constructed in strategic locations, but funding will be a problem for any lengthy stretch.  It will be more show than substance. The repercussions will give Republican lawmakers pause.

But there will be some extensive changes to immigration policy, some of which will be embraced. Take for example tightened restrictions on H-1B visas.  Even there, Trump will learn that this abused program can only be throttled back so far, because our schools are not turning out enough STEM talent to meet the demands of science and industry.

A beefed-up Border Patrol is one practical objective many will support.  The members of the USBP save lives and interdict dangerous criminals. Unlike a wall, they offer a flexible response for dealing with illegal immigration. Walls cannot make arrests or render assistance to those challenging the hostile terrain which exists over a vast swath of the border.

Government environmental regulations will be reduced, but to what degree depends on popular support. A majority of our citizens do care deeply about the environment.  People depend on it for recreation, comfort, health and a safe food and water supply. If they feel the environment is significantly threatened, they will push back in noticeable numbers, enough to turn up the political heat in Congress.

A reduction in corporate taxes is almost a certainty.  However, it will be a balancing act between what it will take to bring offshore earnings back home and avoiding the appearance of catering to Wall Street. And no politician wants the Wall Street label to stick. This could be the biggest battle Congress faces, one in which Trump will have the least influence for fear of alienating blue collar workers, the very constituency that helped push him over the top in the election.

The greatest uncertainty involves international relations.  A president has wide leeway in deploying or redeploying troops. Some would argue he has the power to terminate a treaty without the consent of Congress. The Constitution is not specific on this subject.

Most certainly, Trump could effectively undermine NATO by pulling resources from it, turning the alliance into a mere shell.

How about a trade agreement such as NAFTA?

NAFTA is a congressional-executive agreement, not a real treaty. There are no rules as to who can terminate one, so it would appear Trump could pull out over the objections of Congress.

In the end, for Trump’s policies to prevail, he needs broad support from both Congress and the public.

You do not earn broad support with provocative remarks in social media.  Think of the number of people who are unfriended on Facebook because of their relentless partisan posts and memes.

The Tweeter-in-Chief will have more to lose than gain in his use of the internet. People just might unvote him.

Prop 47 crime wave

I had a firsthand look of the chaos bestowed on the population by the passage of Prop 47. As almost all of you know, the measure raised the threshold of a felony and led to the early release of many career criminals.

A neighbor’s house was ransacked and robbed last night.  The family was on an errand for a period of less than two hours, not a long time by most measures, but far more than enough time for criminals to do their deed.

I talked with the LAPD officers who were investigating.  When I mentioned there has been a steady increase of property crimes in the community since the passage of Prop 47, the officer piped right up, “We are seeing an influx of thieves from other states. They know the odds of going to jail are slim.”

There have been steady reports posted to Nextdoor about burglaries in Valley Village.  As president of the homeowners’ association, I am acutely aware of this growing problem, which effects many communities in Los Angeles.  I have lived here since 1986 and have never before seen such a spike in crimes.

Many of the crimes are brazen – carried out in broad daylight.  Thieves have walked all the way up driveways to break into cars, not simply satisfied to target those parked on the street. That takes some cajones…and desperation, a combination that is dangerously explosive and could indicate a propensity for violence by the perpetrators.

It is bad enough that thousands of professional burglars have flooded the streets after early release; we have also become a magnet for out-of-state talent, as the LAPD officer related.

The people of California voted for Prop 47. It was supported by the top elected officials in the state.  It even had the support of New Gingrich!

It is time for the state’s voters to reverse this truly misguided policy.  It will require a new ballot measure, and, in the short run, legislation mitigating the impact of 47.

It is also time to build new prisons.  Instead of selling bonds to construct an extraordinarily expensive  high-speed train, let’s invest in state-of-the-art prisons which have the facilities for addressing and correcting the causes of recidivism. There will always be those who do not respond to intervention – they will ultimately require a lifetime of incarceration, so the capacity must be in place to deal with them as well.

Opponents to this would claim we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of a growing, statewide crime wave.  The converse for that argument is more grounded in reality – we cannot reduce crime by rapidly increasing the supply of criminals, as Prop 47 has done.

 

Costly Accounting

Accounting topics usually do not show up on the radar, especially in times when other news topics are red hot. There is, however, a conceptual transition worth noting with wide ramifications.

Good accounting is not just desirable; it is vital. Business and the general public require the best possible financial information in order to transact and invest in confidence.

Regardless, it makes sense for the cost of accounting changes to favorably correlate with the benefits.  For example, spending a fortune to analyze or report on an obscure, immaterial activity is hardly a sound course of action.  A cost vs. benefits standard should be applied when a widespread accounting change is entertained.

The largest accounting change in the last 10 years (perhaps one of the largest ever) is underway. It’s ASC 606. ASC stands for Accounting Standards Codification and is the source for what is commonly known as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).  666 might be a more appropriate code number.

The key objective of 606 is to create consistency for reporting revenue across all industries for customer contracts. Current GAAP is more industry specific. This amounts to a transition to  a one-size-fits-all approach from one which recognizes unique business practices.

There is much to say about the benefits of consistency, but plain vanilla does not necessarily deliver the disclosure the public needs in an increasingly complex world.

If anything, ASC 606 increases the complexity of evaluating customer contracts by requiring revenue determination at various points in time. Basically, the economic substance of the affected contracts remains the same, so it is mainly a matter of timing of when the revenue hits the books.

OK, not so bad, but the current method has been working well for a long time. (A side note: the Enron-type disasters of the past were due to lax compliance with internal controls.  No change in revenue recognition principles will prevent a recurrence. The objectives of ASC 606, as well as any other accounting change, are not intended to address fraud, abuse or lack of due diligence).

Is 606 worth it? The benefits are arguable. And for all the talk about consistency, some industries are exempt from the scope! Eventually, it is likely other exemptions will be made.  After all, industries and products are not static.

Companies have and will incur significant costs to implement it.  The sad part is no one really knows how much. There is no national tracking tool in place.

My guesstimate of the price tag is based on the ratio of accounting, IT and auditing costs to revenue, roughly 5%.  The aggregate revenue for S&P 1500 companies is $13 Trillion, so it works out to around $65 Billion, or about $43 Million per company, if you figure that major conversion efforts require an equivalent of around 10% of the  5%.  The cost will be disproportionately worse for smaller companies, and probably even worse for nonpublic firms.

Companies can make substantial improvements to reporting and control systems for that kind of money, improvements which can provide greater protection and quality of information to the shareholders and stakeholders than playing with the timeline for revenue recognition.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) purports to consider the cost to the private sector of its decisions, but it missed the boat here. One author even suggested that ASC 606 was pushed forward to justify FASB’s efforts in the wake of its failed attempt to converge US GAAP with International Financial Reporting Standards – an objective that grew out of the Norwalk Agreement of 2002, the inspiration for 606.

Fourteen years of futility comes at a pretty high price…and difficult to explain when you have little to show for it!  Reminds me of DWP’s decision to implement its new billing system rather than man up to the public and admit it would be a disaster.

The conversion, which for the largest companies started ramping up in earnest a couple of years ago,  will run through 2017.  The implementation date is in 2018 (2019 for nonpublic companies).  Afterwards, addressing post-implementation glitches will undoubtedly cost a bundle. As cousin Eddy told Clark Griswald in Christmas Vacation about the Jelly-of-the-Month Club,”Clark, it’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year through.”

In this case, years to come…and as useful a gift as fruit cake.

The outcome of the presidential election was a surprise to me as much as it was to anyone.

What is not a surprise is the reaction to it.

There have been some extreme events and outbursts, including rioting by some Clinton supporters and some nasty displays of neo-Nazism by the loosely organized Alt-right group. Fortunately, these reactions are not acceptable to the population as a whole. Most of us are moving forward and dealing with change in a rational manner. The checks and balances embedded in the Constitution will prevent significant, or even sudden, permanent changes to our government.

However, one proposed remedy to Trump’s victory resurrects an issue this nation has faced before…..secession from the United States.

As a practical matter, according to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, it is virtually impossible, short of an apocalyptic disaster which throws our nation into dysfunctional chaos. Although there are many who believe we have been dysfunctional for a long time, I have news for you – the national government has not only survived, it has expanded its influence.

The Post article states: Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution specifies how a state can gain admission to the United States. There is no stipulation, though, for the reverse. Even if Obama wanted to let Texas go — a thought that probably appealed to him for at least a second — there’s no mechanism for him to do so. There’s no mechanism for Congress to simply say, Sure, off you go. Once you’re in, you’re in. The United States was born an expansionist enterprise, and the idea of contraction, it seems, never really came up.

To those proposing a Cal-exit , don’t waste your time, or those of the state’s voters, with a referendum to seek secession.

Having said that, the topic is worthy of an interesting hypothetical discussion.

Did the Civil War really resolve whether secession is constitutional? I touched on this subject in an article I wrote for Citywatch in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

As I pointed out, the seven states that seceded prior to Lincoln’s inauguration could have gotten away with it had Fort Sumter had not been fired upon by Confederate batteries. Absent the catalyst the attack provided, the nation had no stomach for war, much less a civil war. Had Lincoln raised troops to forcibly end secession, it is likely the entire Upper South would have joined the Lower South, including the critical border states of Kentucky and Maryland. Washington would have been isolated; Lincoln’s administration would have been dead on arrival.

A southern-leaning Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a slaveholder himself, may have ruled in favor of the break.

What the Civil War did make certain was the illegality of forceful secession.

Does that mean peaceful or passive secession is permissible?

As mentioned earlier, there is no process for separation via legislation. There is nothing in the Constitution to guide Congress; nothing even stipulating a voting margin for such an action. Any request by a state to secede would simply die.

But let’s just say it did occur.

Just like divorce, there would be a property settlement…..and would that be costly to California! Do you think the rest of the states would transfer control of Yosemite and other national parks for a song? How about military installations and other federal government real estate?

The financial obligations California would incur for buying out its share of the unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare of its citizens would be worse.

California claims to receive less monies from the federal government than it sends. That is so much BS. The benefits to the state from physical protection and security provided by the federal government is incalculable. In terms of economic trade, California’s primary trading partners are part of the Pacific Rim. Without the leverage of the federal government behind us, we would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with China and Japan, whose economies dwarf those of the Golden State.

Then there are details of establishing a monetary unit and a central bank.

How about supporting embassies throughout the world?

The nation of California would be bankrupt from the get-go.

One other thing. There are regions within California which will not go along with the plan. Much of California’s agriculture and water is attributable to the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, respectively. Those regions would balk at the plan. They would form their own state, or possibly request to join Nevada. Sacramento would find itself isolated from the rest of its subjects. California would be totally dependent on a foreign government for food, water and energy.

The secession movement is laughable until you realize its proponents really believe it is plausible. For their sake, I sure hope they do not receive Nigerian e-mail solicitations.

But just the talk of secession further alienates California from the rest of the nation.

One of our top attractions is Wine Country. We do not want to be labeled Whine Country.

Ivanka Trump will take the oath of office as President of the United States in 2032. By then, she will have served in Congress for ten years, filling Rep. Peter King’s seat in New York. This would come after four years as White House Press Secretary.

I can hear the readers of this article madly typing comments, many of them expressing outrage.

Before you hit the “send now” button, you should understand that those who are well-acquainted with me know my affection for satire. I have even written a few satirical pieces for Citywatch.

In my early youth, I developed an appreciation for the genre. Steve Allen’s and Ernie Kovacs’ off-the-wall skits, while not about politics, not to mention tame by today’s standards, were the prototypes for contemporary comedic interpretations of current events and social norms.

John Oliver’s work is at the top of my list these days (Jon Stewart is OK, but Colbert is a frightful bore). Oliver pulls no punches and uses gut-busting delivery and politically incorrect content, although I wish he would refrain from over-reliance on the F-bomb.

I’m waiting for someone to perform a skit about Ivanka Trump rising to power; Chelsea Clinton too – it has been reported that she is being groomed to run for Congress. There’s great potential material here. It could top all of the Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton sketches that appeared on SNL.

I thought Donald Trump’s campaign was satire – until November 8th – but Clinton ended up as the punchline. So, while I am not serious about either Ivanka’s or Chelsea’s prospects for leading the nation, the recent election proves that anything can happen. Maybe Billy Bush can resurrect his family’s political fortunes.

Yes, anything can happen, but, judging from partisan Facebook posts, few of Clinton’s supporters failed to recognize that right up through late in the afternoon of November 8th. By the way, Dave Chappelle’s sketch with Chris Rock on SNL hilariously made that point.

Both candidates took their lumps in the parodies; perhaps Trump more so, but his rants were softballs which the writers were able to knock out of the park. Many Clinton supporters may have developed a false sense of security by assuming the satire reflected the prevailing sentiment across all regions. However, what may seem funny and improbable one day, can become reality the next.

Too many people have a myopic view of the world. They do not understand how anyone can hold an opposing position. As a result, they can get blindsided and unduly horrified when results do not go their way.

We owe it to ourselves to understand the underlying reasons for the views of a wider audience, not just what is reported in the mainstream and social media, or fed to us by partisan organizations. Michael Moore had it right.

Unless we make an effort to understand each other, we will allow satire to obscure reality. Then it will no longer be funny.

I have been wrong every step of the way in this campaign.

I thought Trump would be defeated in the primaries or taken down at the Republican convention. And certainly there was no way he could win a national election after alienating large segments of the population.

Wrong, wrong, wrong……but so were the pollsters.

How did it happen? After all, Clinton had the organization, hardened foot soldiers reaching out to key demographic groups and the backing of a popular president.

Basically, the same playbook she followed in 2008; it failed her then, too. In hindsight, it was doomed to fail again when you consider decreasing support and disgust for the two major political parties. I guess you can say Clinton is a slow learner.

She also alienated important groups, just as Trump did. It started back in 2016 in West Virginia, when she threw the coal miners under the bus, in so many words dismissing them as a non-factor. I wrote about it in Citywatch then:

Pulling the rug out from under those whose livelihoods depend on the coal industry is not how you win their hearts and minds.

The bad feelings will not be limited to West Virginia either. The swing state of Ohio is in play, where 33,000 are employed in the industry and coal provides 69% of the state’s electricity. Those employees have friends and relatives, so the potential for a meaningful block turning out in a tight race is there.”

Apparently, the effect went beyond coal miners and their families: blue-collar families of all stripes, all throughout the nation, who share the same values as their brethren toiling in the hills of Appalachia, felt insulted.

The e-mail fiasco just added fuel to the fire. Even that crisis would have diminished if she had taken the criticism seriously from the start, instead of her initial humorous take on it.

The Clinton Foundation donations from foreign countries also undercut her.

Basically, all of this contributed to the public’s poor perception of her trustworthiness. When you lose trust, it is difficult to get it back, more so when your personality does not convey warmth and sensitivity. The personality issue was more pronounced when compared to President Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s charisma.

Trump had more than his share of problems – offensive remarks, refusal to share his tax returns, trash-talk about world affairs – but amazingly that was not enough to offset Clinton’s negative image. It is as if voters perceived him as being genuine, in a perverse way.

Bottom line, this race was never about ideology. Otherwise, President Obama’s popularity, which was partly due to his policies, would have carried her.

Our nation hasn’t changed. People still care by health coverage. Most people do not want to see a wall along the border. We do not want to abandon our allies.

It appears all most people want is a president they can read like a book. And one who can read them.

And what a book.

Don’t know what the next chapter has in store.