09 September 2017

"The Zone" is more than just a place

Once upon a time there was a special place. So special, that the people of the land and country on both sides of the place were not allowed to go there, unless invited or to work. The only people who could live there were aliens from another land. And they brought that other land with them, right down to mowed lawns, schools and supermarkets, bowling alleys and cinemas. But only the aliens were allowed to send their sons and daughters to the schools, and only the aliens were allowed to shop in the stores. This special place, we'll call it "The Zone" contained the single most valuable national infrastructure asset in the country. An asset so huge and costly to build, that it became one of the single most important strategic assets of the aliens, and of the world; more important than almost any infrastructure asset in the aliens own land. Now imagine that this asset could generate, directly, or enable up to 20% of the country's GDP, if it could be exploited by the country it sat in. Imagine also that this asset could, but did not, generate a continual revenue stream to the national government, that could be used for development, roads, education, rural electrification, ports, healthcare systems, the list goes on.

Oil is one of the only natural resources that is able to generate that kind of benefit for a country, but then only if the global oil market is delivering a price point that exceeds the extraction and committed costs associated with that oil. But as oil is fungible and (relatively) plentiful, too often countries have created spending commitments based on a oil prices at their peak, and not at their trough or even average price. The price of oil jumps, then crashes, then crashes and jumps again, and now is relatively stable at a level below the cost of production for many countries that rely on oil revenues.

Imagine instead a resource that is limited, stable, non-fungible, with a clearly definable economic break even point for consumers and users of that resource. And where was that special resource? In "The Zone" of course, out of reach of the country in which it sits, and completely under the control of the aliens with their supermarkets and schools and mowed lawns.

To make matters worse, the aliens were giving it away! Access to the resource was mandated to be provided at an operating break even price, not at a economic break even price for the user of the resource. This means that the users effectively gained a massive windfall at the expense of the country. Restricted access to that infrastructure and asset, and the inability to influence the pricing of the asset (or use of the asset) and inability to access a revenue stream for the government, was holding back economic development of the rest of the country.

So economic development outside "The Zone" progressed at a crawl, with the host country unable to enter "The Zone" without permission, unable to set the price of the resource, and unable to economically benefit from that resource.

The Panama Canal is that resource, and it sits in the middle of "The Zone", a strip of land 10 miles wide, which since the end of 1999 is once again Panamanian national territory. Before the handover, the Panama Canal was mandated to run as a break-even proposition, owned by the United States government. As much at $10 million per year in profit could be provided to the Panamanian government, if the Canal ran a surplus. $10 million on annual revenues of $350 million is not a very good return on the asset, and this was the maximum that was authorized to be paid.

In 1989, the Panama Canal Authority had revenues of US$329 million. With inflation, that $329 million in 1989 would equate to $638 million in 2017 dollars. Current, 2016, Panama Canal revenue was $1,933 million, based on traffic volumes; total tonnage has almost doubled, while total transits remains comparable to 1989. So for decades, the equivalent of $1.3 billion in national revenue was effectively being distributed to shipping companies in the form of subsidized low-cost canal transits.

"Including the passage of neopanamax ships by the new locks, the Canal recorded between October 2015 and September 30th, a total of 13,114 transits and 330.7 million CP-UMS tons (volume measurement of the Universal Systems Tonnage of the Canal of Panama), said the official information."

Today "The Zone" remains, but is now Panamanian national territory, and while most of the land was converted into, and remains a national park, development does encroach.

Most importantly though, the Canal now runs as a profit making infrastructure, delivering over $1.5 Billion into the Panamanian treasury every year. In addition to the direct revenue to the Panamanian government, the very existence of the Canal creates and enables a massive logistics and transport industry, accounting for over 20% of the GDP of the country.

That increase in national revenue is remarkably stable. While traffic volumes fluctuate, the swings are in no way as wide, up or down, as the price of oil. Nor is the price of transit fungible. There is only one Canal, and the options are quite limited if you want to avoid rounding the South American continent, or if transporting across the North American continent by train is too expensive and time consuming. Therefore the Canal is able to price its service based on the economics of transporting goods by any other method or route. This creates a very steady revenue stream, and the country has been able to put that to good use for national infrastructure development.

There is a long way to go for Panama, and as with all developing countries, the challenges are huge, not least education, health, infrastructure and employment (although official employment figures are health with an official unemployment rate in the 4% - 5% range for a number of years). Corruption is rampant, and while Panama is a major offshore financial center, the "Panama Papers" scandal of 2016 dented its reputation.

If anything positive can be said about the 85 years during which the Canal was under US control, it is that the administrative and operational systems were put in place and a level of discipline inculcated that has carried over to Panamanian administration. The Canal is efficient, profitable, and well maintained, and functions as smoothly under Panamanian control as it did under American.

"The Zone" remains, but is now an artefact. But also remaining is the question of just how developed could this country be if it had access to price and profit from the Canal for the 100 years that it has been in operation, and not for the 17 years that it has been under the control of the country in which it is located.

27 August 2017

How to Bribe a policeman

Is "petty corruption" the same as major corporate or central government corruption?

When flagged down for a minor driving offense, an acquaintance was told by the male and female police officers that this would be a $75 fine. Okay, said the acquaintance, you’re right, I was wrong, write me the ticket and we'll all the on our ways. If only it was so simple. Driving in Panama City can be very difficult, and while a right turn from the inner of three lanes is considered normal, it is possible to break the road code, indeed this is what happened.

First, this is not a comment advocating corruption, or bribing policemen, or bribing anyone else for that matter. This is a comment on the reality of life in Panama, and no doubt in many other countries. Bribery is "normal" in so many places and situation; sometimes petty as I'm going to describe, while at other times major such as the brown envelop scandals of Siemens and Odebrecht, and the Asset Seizure Program in the United States.

Odebrecht is the current poster-child for massive corporate corruption, having bribed its way to successful bids for major infrastructure projects across Latin America. One estimate is that Odebrecht paid out over $780 million in bribes, with investigations and arrests under way in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and other countries. This was corruption on a massive scale, and has already brought down at least one government.

Unlike corporate corruption, in too many countries, including Panama and the United States, to name just two, police forces are under-funded, and in many cases, police officers are poorly paid. In some cases, they are so poorly paid that they cannot, on their salaries, feed their families and buy their uniforms. An unfortunate position to place the protectors of social order, including general ethical standards.

In the United States, police budgets are boosted by something called the Asset Seizure Program ("Civil Forfeiture" program), a process by which police can declare that you had the intent to use your assets to commit a crime, or that those assets were gained as a result of criminal activity. Of course, if you can prove that you are innocent, in as much as you did not commit a crime to afford your car, and if you can prove that you did not plan to commit a crime such as buying drugs with the $200 (or $2000) that you have on you, then they will give those assets back to you. You will need to hire a lawyer and go to court, so in many cases, even fighting will cost you more than the assets sieved. US police forces boosted their budgets by $4.5 billion in 2014, more that the total reported value of property reported stolen in burglaries that year.
This can better the described as Kleptocratic behavior on the part of a government. Top-down corruption, if you will.

But coming back to Panama, and our friend stopped by the police.

"A ticket would be a bad thing for your record" the police said, "there is probably a better way to handle this". According to the story we were told, the driver then figured out what was being suggested, and decided to play along, with no desire or intent to pay a bribe. "What do you mean?" She is European, and Northern European, and the thought of bribing a policeman for any reason was deeply repugnant to her way of thinking.

Well, they said, if you were, for example, to pay the fine on the spot, it would of course be reduced, and there would be no need to add it to your permanent record. "Okay", she said, "can I pay it right now at the police station?"

Well that wouldn't be very convenient, would it? So they asked for her passport, which you are required to have with you at all times in Panama. She handed it over, and they looked at it, and handed it back. "There seems to be something missing" she was told. Again, she played dumb.

This carried on for a short while, with the two police looking at each other, wondering about just how dim this woman could possibly be. This was a perfectly normal transaction, and they were confused as to why this wasn't going to script.

So they passed her a red notebook, and in their frustration, said "Look, the way it works is that you put a $20 in the notebook, and everyone is happy." And with no option being given, and instead of the $75 fine that she would legitimately have had to pay for a real ticket, she took a $20, put into the red notebook as instructed, and handed the notebook back to the police.

And yes, that was the end of the story. They then very politely wished her on her way, as if nothing had happened. The law had been upheld, she had been fined for breaking the law. They did their job in pointing that out to her, and giving her an option that did not include wasting her time and theirs, and costing her more money. And they were paid what is in effect the top-up to their salaries that is expected.

Does any of this excuse or condone what was done. Was the FCPA (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) law broken, or the UK Bribery Act broken? Most surely, a foreign official, two actually, were paid a bribe.

Am I suggesting a moral equivalence between the individual police extracting bribes when minor infringements happen, and the crimes of Odebrecht, Siemens and the US national and state governments? Actually, I would suggest that the bigger evil, not just because of the bigger amounts involved, is the US Asset Seizure Program. This is the nation-state acting as the organized criminal enterprise. Odebrecht and Siemens were crooked, not doubt about that, and used capitalist incentives to illegally entice officials to win sales. The local police who use these tactics to pay for uniforms, food and housing, and schooling for their children, all within an existing and established culture that has effectively established a price for infringements, is the lesser evil by far.

Corruption starts at the top, and the messages from the top determine if a society is corrupt. In the case of the police in Panama, are they individually more corrupt than company executives, or less (or more) than local and national police forces that use extra-judicial seizure of assets? The higher the corruption starts and is justified, the greater the rot it contributes to and create in a society.

22 August 2017

Ethics, Audits, and Business Behaviour

So here we are again, with another corporate scandal. Who is it this week, Wells Fargo, Odebrecht, Uber, United, or someone else? The list of corporate scandals for even the past couple of years is daunting (and here, and here). Looking at the political landscape, we see the same thing, not just in the United States, but across the world. Another "breach of trust". Who would like to be dragged off the airplane today, or who would like to discover that your bank has been opening accounts in your name, that you get to pay for, without your permission?  How about that nice new bridge contract; the one that the contractor won off the back of brown envelopes, lots of envelopes?

Yet this is the reality of business today. In too many cases, the subsequent fine is significantly less than the profits from the (not proven to be criminal) activities that resulted in the scandal. Only in a few cases does the scandal result in an existential crisis for the company. Usually it only reduces management bonuses, and effectively robs the shareholders (and too frequently the customers) through destruction of share price.

Unfortunately too common following these crisis is the call for greater ethical standards. Sometimes, as happened this week with the Wells Fargo scandal, there will be calls for the audit to be improved, or the auditor sanctioned. Why unfortunately? Because such calls are meaningless.

Francine Mckenna and Andrea Riquier have written (another) strong article effectively asking "Where was KPMG, Wells Fargo’s auditor, while the funny business was going on?".  Not surprisingly, the Audit and Governance community react by pointing out that the auditor is not actually required to find or disclose non-material fraud. Nor are the auditors required to report where ethics are absent.

Pages are written about the PCAOB Auditing Standards, and the role of the Auditor. Almost all of it in defense of the audit profession. But Francine and Andrea quote Andy Green

“There’s been far too little attention since the crisis on how the external auditors should be looking out for the public,” Andy Green, managing director of economic policy for the Center for American Progress, told MarketWatch. They are not just bookkeepers, but the investors’, and the capital markets’ last defense against accounting manipulation and fraud.”

While extensively quoting the article, Norman Marks asks "Wells Fargo and KPMG – did KPMG fail the investors?" Actually, yes, they did. In fact, while Norman's list of things that Francine and Andrea "omitted from the article" are all correct, none of those change the fact that KPMG did fail the investors. They complied with the standards; they failed the ethical question.

Francine has a long history of taking the Audit profession to task, and while not agreeing with everything she has written, she is quite right far more times than not. The problem of course is that we do not want Auditors to tell the truth, or to opine on the ethical foundation of businesses or the individuals running those businesses.

On the one hand, they (the auditor) probably would not be able to, as they have spent so many decades as apologists for their clients. On the other hand, they would probably find that there were too few businesses or leaders that would pass a reasonable-man ethics course (based on their choices, not based on their ability to pass a test or give the "correct" answers).

Many years ago someone said to me that we didn't need more rules, we just needed better enunciated Ethical standards. I will repeat my answer:

"Ethics only apply to Ethical People".

All the ethical standards in the world will not make ethical people, especially when reward systems do not support ethical behavior. You can have all the ethical standards that you want, but fundamentally, unethical people will ignore then, and worse, will ensure that they pay for the appropriate PR to demonstrate just how ethical they and their businesses are.

I'm talking of course about people skilled in the art of managing the message. Not the bungling mouth pieces of today, who refuse to answer any question but use the time to rehearse some well scripted talking point.  I'm talking about Clive, from Telecom New Zealand (in the 1990s, so no relation to anyone there today, I'm sure).

Clive once said the secret to corporate communications was simple; "Bad news is good news, good news is no news".

While that works for managing the message, it does not demonstrate ethical behavior or even an ethical outlook, although there were a few cases where Clive most definitely was putting the positive face on what were apparently unpleasant situations.

Yet there is no way you can spin fraudulent accounts and accounting as good news. And there is no way that you can spin auditor ignorance or ignoring of fraudulent accounts as good news. There is no way that sexual harassment at the top of organizations can be spun to be good news. It is not even good news when these people are exposed, as it argues for a deeper pool of unexposed persons, all carrying on the behaviors that they have learned from their seniors (and betters?).

No, "Ethics only apply to Ethical People". For the rest there is something called "Jail time". We should stop trying to spin good news, or even trying to simply extract fines from companies. People did these things, and people should be held accountable.

If we want real Ethical behavior, then the cost of unethical behavior needs to be much higher.

That goes for Auditors as well.

18 August 2017

Contra-Contrarian; is the US Doomed, or about to Boom

1 Are the Contrarians Right and Wrong?

Is the United States demographically positioned for years of economic growth? I am, perhaps naturally, a contrarian, in many things, and certainly at the moment, with markets seeming to defy gravity. Yet what if I, and most contrarians, are wrong, and the (US) markets actually have years of continued growth ahead of them? Is this possible? Is if different this time, and if so, why is it different. Or are historic indicators that signal doom strong enough to overcome the current "sweet spot" that enables sustained growth?

1.1 Is a crash due?

There are too many indicators that suggest a crash is due, ranging from record or near record EPS (earnings per share) levels, increasing consumer financial leverage, expanding sub-prime auto loans coupled with ever longer loan periods on vehicles, to inconsistent messages from the FED, the US debt and deficits, concern at the ability of the Trump administration to achieve any meaningful tax or economic program, to global debt levels and the real threat of a trade war with China, Russia and possibly Europe. There are simply so many potential triggers that could push investor confidence over the edge, and "buy the dip" has not, this recent post-election cycle, been adequately tested against a real dip of 5% or more.

1.2 Is Unemployment as low as official figures?

Counter balance the signs of potential doom with another terrible number, so terrible that it actually might be the number that enables multi-year sustained economic growth in the United States: Real Unemployment. Not the number produced by the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), which is based not on the number of people not working, but on the number of people collecting an unemployment benefit. That number is now in the high 4% range, a historically low number, and a number that fills economists with fear of wage and then wider inflation.

But if the Shadow Stats (http://www.shadowstats.com/) number is correct, then over 22% unemployment is the correct number of the United States today. This is based on the Shadow Stats use of historic methodologies for the determination of unemployment (and inflation, etc). Over the decades, the US Government's methodology for calculation these key metrics has changed. Shadow Stats continues to use the earlier methodology, on the assumption that while much has changed, the primary methodologies for calculating unemployment, for example, remain the same.

This is in part bolstered by the labor participation rate, which remains at historically low level, even with a recent up-tick in participation. Current labor force participation rate is around 62%, the same level as 1978. The gap between the highest participation rate of 67% in 2007 and the current participation rate amount to approximately 6.4 million potential workers.

The BLS tells us that the current Civilian Labor Workforce is 160 million. This means that the 4% drop equates to roughly 6.4 million potential workers who are not in the workforce. If 4% unemployment is this historical “full employment” number, then we are at or close to full employment, meaning there is an additional 4% of the workforce that is untapped. Shadow Stats estimates the number of additional discouraged worker who want a job to be around 4.75 million (as at June 2016).

2 Demographic "sweet spot"

So the US has seen a dramatic fall in the labor participation, and an explosion of unemployment to the 20% level, resulting in a huge pool of unemployed working age individuals. While the "dependency ratio" has not improved, at least one element of the demographic sweet spot is definitely in place.

So what is the demographic sweet spot, and how can a nation experience this twice?

As counties have matured over the past century, a trend has been seen that is now known as the demographic sweet spot. Effectively this is the period of time between the fall in birth-rates and the exhaustion of the available surplus working age population. That surplus available working age population is created through a higher dependency ratio (the number of working age individual for every dependent - child or elderly). As infant mortality rates fall, younger, and then working age, populations surge. At the same time, longevity improvements take some time to filter through, so the number of elderly dependents remains low.

The dependency ratio is important because the greater the number of working age individuals to retired or young, the greater the available pool of labor. The US currently has a low dependency ratio, which argues against there being a pool of available labor, yet we know from participation rates, unemployment rates, and the growth in the over-65 workforce, that the dependency ratio in the US is not acting as a drag on potential productivity increase.

This sweet spot increases the available human capital, and fuels economic growth through the increased productive capacity of the country.

Might the United States be in (again) that sweet spot, with a very large pool of available labor, ready to join (or re-join) the workforce once jobs are available?

3 If Shadow Stats is mostly right

Basically it comes down to the question; is Shadow Stats right on the unemployment rate, coupled with the labor market participation rate. If they are, then there is a massive pool of untapped labor available to industry. Bringing that labor into the workforce will require new jobs, and wage inflation.

Yet wage inflation is completely normal in developing countries that are going through their sustained growth periods when they reach the demographic sweet spot. The available workforce increases, jobs come in to absorb the available labor, skill improve, wages increase as the available labor at previous rates is soaked up, new jobs are created, etc.

4 If Shadow Stats is very wrong.

Yet is Shadow Stats is wrong, and the unemployment rates are actually lower, and that low labor market participation rates are low because of a systemic shift in workforce expectations and available jobs at any economic rate, then we are Doomed, Doomed. Well, maybe not doomed, but we cannot expect to see a demographically based sustained growth period.

If we are not in for such growth, then we should expect one of the factors mentioned in the opening paragraphs to be the trigger for a market collapse. If that does happen, all bets are off, and it will not be different this time.