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In a recent news release, State Treasurer John Chiang said:  “…the Governor and I are partnering on a fiscally prudent plan to buy down our pension debt using what Albert Einstein once called ‘the eighth wonder of the world,’ compound interest. ”

It’s not Albert Einstein he should be crediting, but Bernie Madoff.

The plan calls for shifting $6B from the state’s short-term investment pool, where it earns less than a point, to Calpers, where it could conceivably earn 7% (the most recent 20-year average).  The difference in earnings could generate $11B over the next 20 years for the financially challenged fund.

The math is theoretically correct, but it is a classic example of papering over a problem.

Just as Madoff used cash from recent investors to pay established clients, Chiang is shortchanging the needs of the rest of the state by denying access to these monies for general purposes.

He is also ignoring the risks of shifting funds from a risk-free pool to a highly volatile investment fund.  As I have stated before, the world economy has undergone major structural change over the last few decades.  Increased competition, which has been generally good for consumers, has also heightened investment risk.  Chiang should know that past performance is no indicator of future returns, especially when the past has little resemblance to the present. Whipsawing is a more appropriate description of Calpers performance in more contemporary times.

Rather than coming to grips with the real problem, that is, insufficient employee contributions to cover very generous benefits, Chiang wants to play a shell game. Yes, even assuming the 5.1% rate for the most recent 10 years, more cash would be generated, but any improvement in returns is lost to the general fund.

Chiang should be considering altering the investment strategy of the short-term pool.  A targeted rate of 1.5 points (about one-third more than  the current return) could be accomplished without undue exposure to additional risk. It would be much safer than allowing Calpers to roll the dice and pray we do not have a major economic crisis.

But regardless, he is re-purposing cash and locking it up at a time when the state has other pressing needs.

Once the $6B is transferred to Calpers, it becomes political capital benefiting only one segment of the state’s population – public employees.

But then, they are who Brown and Chiang represent.

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Illegal sources of income are subject to federal and state income tax; so, why would I object to the City of Los Angeles collecting Transitory Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenue from illegal short-term rentals, such as Air BnB?

In the former case, taxation does not exempt scofflaws from prosecution.  If anything, tax compliance requirements are useful tools to bring criminals to justice or enhance their sentences . If Al Capone were alive, he would agree.

The latter is different – it creates an impediment to enforcing zoning laws.  A cash-strapped city like Los Angeles will not want to bite the hands that feed it.  It is the equivalent of bribery.  Pay to play, and the city will not pursue enforcement of residential zoning codes. The City Council and mayor will drag their feet, if not completely overlook, the protection of honest residents’ right to enjoy their neighborhoods without the adverse effects associated  with revolving door occupancy.

In his annual budget letter to the mayor and City Council, City Controller Ron Galperin weighed in.  He said the city must be “vigilant to consider the potential TOT revenue impacts to the general fund.”

As I read between the lines of his statement, that’s not really an endorsement of the policy. If anything, it is a carefully nuanced assessment.  Ron is the controller and he is required to advise the city on any financial matter – good or bad.

But zoning violations should not be ignored just because the cash generated by the TOT partially mitigates the effects of the city’s reckless approach in managing its budget. Please note that Galperin also emphasized the importance of a prudent and well-balanced budget. Ignoring laws does not meet the definition of prudent.

It’s a good thing that a city-sanctioned, short-term rental scheme did not exist when Scarface Al was around. No telling how much more power he would have wielded in Chicago.

We now face an army of non violent mini-Als, no baseball bats or Chicago pianos, but armed with industry lawyers and plenty of money.

 

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Mayor Eric Garcetti caught some flak in a recent LA Times article for failing to mention the $1.1B the city must pay to fund employee pensions.

But let’s be fair: the Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee deserves an equal share of the criticism:

“Despite recent funding shortfalls, over long periods the performance of the pension system’s investments has met or surpassed expectations.” Council Member Paul Krekorian, as quoted in the LA Times, November 18, 2016.

This is an example of the naivete of our elected officials. Mr. Krekorian forgets, or chooses to ignore, that past performance is no indication of future returns;  the further back in time, the less relevant are the results. The 15-year return for LACERS is 6.5%; the 10-year is 5.9%. The world economy has undergone major structural changes over the 30 year period, for which the average return was 8.4%.  Projecting investment performance based on data from over 20 years ago is as useful as comparing Barry Bonds’ stats to Hank Aaron’s.

Or maybe its an acknowledgement that city officials do not represent the public as a whole, only the city employees and retirees, many of whom reside outside of the city. According to the results of a 2014 study reported by the Times, about two-thirds of city employees live elsewhere. So much for a multiplier effect. While those employees cannot vote in city elections, the unions representing them are powerful political forces.

The mayor and City Council hope to make a dent in the problem by taxing short-term, Air BnB style rentals, effectively trashing zoning in residential neighborhoods.  Certainly, a share of the new gas tax will flow to the city, along with some “legalized” pot-related revenue (it remains to be seen how the Justice Department deals with the conflict between federal and state laws).  However, the city could lose some, or all, of the surplus transfer from the DWP.

The fact remains, 20% of the general fund goes to cover the city’s pension contribution, a rate that has increased from 5% in 2002. It’s been fairly flat at around 20% for a couple of years. In 2012 it was 15%, the same for 2008, during the height of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Overall, city revenue has increased by $1.2B since Garcetti took office. With that much of an increase, one would expect the city’s contribution rate to drop considerably.  It’s an inconsistency any CEO would have to explain to a board in the form of a simple variance analysis.

It is the result of the deteriorating pension position.  While explaining what an unfunded liability means would put any general audience to sleep, it is far easier – and more understandable – to present an analysis of the contribution rate over a period of several years.  It would make the growing unsustainability of pension promises apparent in terms the public could appreciate.

I will propose to the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) to make such information a required disclosure in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

Who knows – maybe Paul Krekorian would be enlightened.

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Skyhigh Airlines

Do you remember this gem of a commercial from the 1980s?

It was one of an entertaining series produced by Alaska Airlines, parodying the gap between promises of  superior customer service and actual delivery.

Good news for United – they will not have to pay a dime for advertising for a while. There’s plenty of free video available and, unlike the poor chap in the Alaska commercial who at least had a seat, passenger David Dao couldn’t keep his.

But he did receive priority deboarding.

As a frequent flyer, I have endured my share of shoddy service but, quite often, it has been more than balanced with exemplary acts of kindness by airline personnel, both on and off the plane, from the cockpit to the reservation agents and the skycaps.

I am sure the vast majority of United’s rank and file personnel were appalled by this incident, but they have to zip it up lest they face the wrath of CEO Oscar Muñoz and get dragged down the proverbial aisle of retribution.

The airline industry is as complex as it gets, but that fact is often used as tool to bamboozle the public and obfuscate poor management practices.  United and other airlines have been flying for more than half a century and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge about scheduling, matching passenger loads with routes and assigning crews to flights.

When customer service goes awry, airlines’ management just shrug it off as de rigueur of the environment.

If industry CEOs learned from experience and applied fixes, the process of bumping would not be as widespread as it is today.

Airlines bumped 40,000 passengers, not including 434,000 who voluntarily relinquished their seats. Statistics for 2015 show about 895 million passengers were carried on domestic routes. So the number of inconvenienced passengers is a mere fraction of the total.

That’s good, but it is a lottery you do not want to win, especially if you are on a tight schedule.  What’s more, bumping creates delays for all passengers and causes some to miss connections.

The root cause, overbooking, is necessary because of passenger cancellations, according to the industry. Airlines risk losing revenue if they cannot fill seats left vacant by no-shows. But what they fail to admit is the windfall they make off of baggage fees, amounting to $3.8 billion for domestic carriers in 2015.  One study cited by Fortune Magazine estimated close to $11 billion for a la carte fees overall.

The disparity between the two seems inexplicable, but it is a staggering amount no matter what.

Do you think some of this money could be used to offset lost revenue from late cancellations, thereby reducing the need for overbooking? How about some for better comfort?

The public might be more forgiving of mismanagement if they had something in return thrown their way,,,and not just a bag of peanuts.

We are likely to face pay lavatories and other abuse , as depicted in other vintage Alaska commercials, before the airlines show some respect to the people who allow them to exist – the passengers.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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