Grandpa was a Socialist – Solidarity Forever?

Grandpa was a socialist

My grandfather, Alexander, immigrated to the US from Europe in 1905. He apprenticed and worked as a carpenter. By the time I was asking about his early life he was already retired. What I got were anecdotal stories about his life rather than a comprehensive history.

It would be accurate to describe my grandfather as a “union man”.  I knew that he still spent a considerable amount of time each week at the union office with many of his union buddies.

I remember thinking that you needed to be “tough” to be in the union. It had been mentioned more than once around the dinner table that he had been severely beaten by the police while walking a picket line at some point in the late 1920s.

Around the dinner table that event was viewed as a sacrifice; a beating that he took on behalf of his union brothers.  But that was not what he wanted to talk about when I asked him about the union. 

Grandpa saw his union and his union brothers as part of an extended family. If I could synthesize what I learned about his relationship with them it would be “helping all brothers and their families to succeed; letting no brother fail”. 

Hunger was a reality in Grandpa’s community and in other immigrant communities then and now.  In many of these communities, then as now, religious organizations stepped up to care for the community’s needs.  Much of what was considered “radical” about socialists then was really just working hand-in-glove with the conservative religious organizations.      

Grandpa’s Local was affiliated with the Workman’s Circle; an organization formed in the late 1800’s to assist Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Workman’s Circle was a national organization in the US with branches in most industrial cities.

Workman’s Circle was certainly pro-worker and pro-union but it was much more. It helped immigrants to adopt and assimilate. Workman’s Circle sponsored schools, health clinics, food banks, business loans, English and job training and funeral and burial assistance. 

The Workman’s Circle’s world view was rooted in the raw 19th Century brand of socialism. I have no doubt that some members of the Workman’s Circle who organized alongside my grandfather might have heard Marx himself extol a group of workers to unite and strike for higher wages and better conditions.  

I do not think I ever heard anyone affiliated with the union complain about banks or condemn them as evil. My family had its bank account at a local Savings and Loan. It was the same account my father had since he came back from WWII. It was the same S&L where Alexander had his checking and savings accounts. Apparently this particular bank had always catered to union members.  

Nor did my grandfather particularly hate people who were wealthier. On more than one occasion, as we drove passed a local shopping center, he expressed how thankful he was that the developer had the backing to build it, as it had provided more than a year of steady work for himself and his union buddies in one of the worst years of the Great Depression.  

My grandfather was a US citizen, although I cannot tell you when he became one. As far as I know he voted Democratic as did most of my expanded family at that point in time.  I do remember conversations where Pres. Roosevelt was spoken of favorably. I cannot remember a single word suggesting that anyone in the extended family advocated the violent overthrow of the government.

When I saw him at home before he went into the hospital for the last time, he asked me to take $6 out of his wallet and to go down to the union hall and pay his dues. He could not accept dying if his union dues were in arrears.

I had been to the union hall many times over the years. It was the same crowd, just older than I remembered. The clerk Aaron, who took the payment, remarked how he was surprised to see me so “grown-up”.

Three weeks later Aaron and I were pall bearers at grandpa’s funeral. As the casket was wheeled into a little walled off section of the cemetery reserved for union members, I noticed my grandfather’s name on the plague next to the gate. He had been on the union’s cemetery committee when it was dedicated in 1927.

In 1970 the garment center, represented by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was the largest employer in New York City. By the end of that decade the ILGWU was running ads on TV asking people to “look for the Union label, when you are buying a suit, coat or dress.”

People did not take that advice and look for the union label. Those jobs moved to Southern states employing non-union labor and then off-shore where labor was cheaper still.

The argument can be made that the unions had only themselves to blame. As they pushed the price of their labor higher and higher, more and more people were willing to do the jobs for less.  From the 1970s forward, as global transport became cheaper and faster, more and more jobs moved off-shore. 

So what is the legacy of these 20th Century Socialists in America?  Coming out of the pandemic there is certainly an enflamed attitude among workers that they still need to be paid more and treated better.  More and more, unions still matter.

In May of this year, ExxonMobil, one of the world’s wealthiest corporations, shut down a refinery in Beaumont, Texas and locked out about 500 workers. The company claimed that the workers were about to strike anyway, so the lock-out protected the company from any “disruption” that a strike would cause.   

More recently, the company threatened to fire the workers if they refused to accept its current offer and disband the union. The workers, represented by the United Steelworkers union (USW) took a vote and essentially told the company to shove it.

That refinery processes about 400,000 bls. of oil per day. Closing it is one reason ExxonMobil can today talk about supply shortages and raise the price at the pump to over $5.00 for the rest of us.  The company will tell you those workers were offered a fair deal.

Right now there are 10,000 workers on strike against John Deere. Their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the company negotiated a settlement, with a raise for the workers. Almost 90% of the union members rejected the deal.  

The membership argued that the company is making a lot of money and its stock price near all time highs. The executives and shareholders are well paid. The question “what about the workers” is the question that is always at the core of any discussion about socialism.

Today’s post pandemic labor market is unique. There are plenty of workers available today and at the same time a great many jobs going wanting. Workers are demanding more pay and better conditions to return to their old jobs.

Even the largest unions like the UAW are having difficulty delivering what workers want but I would not count them out. There is one other fact I learned from my grandfather, union members do not cross other unions’ picket lines. 

There are many more workers on strike today than in the months before pandemic.  As noted above, they want to be paid more and they do not like to be bullied. Marx, the socialist, is remembered for challenging the workers to unite.  What if they do?

What would happen if all the union members who work for ExxonMobil walk out in support of the union in Beaumont? What if the union members in trucking industry refuse to service any ExxonMobil or Deere facilities?  

Could there be general strikes as Marx envisioned in the US? I would think that workers would need to be pretty unhappy.  Autoworkers and steelworkers are higher paid than most workers and they want more.  If you have ever been a waiter (and I have), I would bet that you would be unhappy with the current minimum wage.

Perhaps the smartest person in the labor/management debate was Henry Ford. He famously doubled workers’ wages in 1914 to keep the unions out and forced the other auto makers to do the same. He believed that the workers needed to be paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they were making. There is no question that the overall economy is better when people have more money in their pockets to spend. 

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please book a time to talk with me HERE

Please STOP Funding Start-ups with “Impractical” Business plans

Please STOP Funding Start-ups

Too many people in the crowdfunding community seem to think that the crowdfunding industry exists solely to provide access to capital to small entrepreneurs who have previously been denied access by the evil banks and brokers on Wall Street. 

I think that the crowdfunding industry will eventually grow and compete with the mainstream banks to fund the same credit worthy companies. The industry just needs to point itself in that direction, something it has been reluctant to do.

Fundraising for start-ups has become remarkably easy with the JOBS Act and equity crowdfunding.  A good, well-funded and professional crowdfunding campaign should receive the funds it seeks every time.

Still many small companies struggle to raise even $50,000 on a Reg. CF funding portal.  Too many of these small Reg. CF offerings fail to raise all of the funds they seek. Part of the reason is that, statistically, 90% of start-ups will fail.

The total universe of investors who might invest in these start-ups is a very small segment of the total number of investors and represents a limited pool of capital. The challenge for any issuer that is crowdfunding for capital is to reach out to enough of the right investors and deliver the right message about your company to them.

Many of the crowdfunding “experts” seem to view investing in start-ups and small businesses as gambling, not finance. That is because many of the funding portals and “experts” know very little about finance.  Some of the portals seem to list any company that can pay the upfront fees.

A great many of the start-ups that seek funding on the Reg. CF funding portals do not deserve to get funded. The offerings are, for want of a better word, crap. The business model they present is unlikely to succeed. Investors are likely to experience a total loss. These companies need to either get their act together or just give up on the idea of getting strangers to fund their business. 

When I read a business plan, I can usually tell if the company has at least a good chance of success or not. It is more than me making an educated guess because there are usually clear signs. Operators of Reg. CF funding portals are supposed to make the same judgment and refuse to host an offering that presents an “impractical” business plan.

Unfortunately, some of the portals do not seem to understand their responsibilities as FINRA members.  Several of the funding portals have no personnel on staff with any experience in any aspect of selling securities, let alone compliance with the regulations. 

I recently joked that what the crowdfunding industry needed most was an introduction to Benjamin Graham because most people operating funding portals think Ben Graham invented a cracker. It is only funny because it is true. 

Several years ago, FINRA expelled crowdfunding portal UFP (uFundingPortal), in part for listing companies with “impractical” business plans. Despite FINRA’s clear warning to the funding portals not to host these types of offerings, many of the funding portals continue to ignore FINRA. 

So what, exactly, does FINRA mean when it is telling funding portals not to list a company that has an “impractical” business plan? It starts with what the company that is raising money is trying to accomplish and whether or not, following its business plan, management has a reasonable chance of making it happen.   

The presentation of an offering on a funding portal should eliminate much of the hype and exaggeration. Notwithstanding, many entrepreneurs are clearly being encouraged to “dream big and promise big” by funding portal operators. If a company is raising capital from investors by making promises it is unlikely to keep, then its business plan is “impractical”.

I think that everyone would agree that a company that is raising $100,000 and promising that it will be enough money to build a skyscraper in Manhattan or to develop a drug that will cure all cancers has an impractical business plan. The same would be true if the skyscraper was not designed by an architect or the drug was intended to be sold without FDA approval. 

A business plan that suggests that the company will sell one million units of its product using social media would be impractical if the company did not have some way of backing-up that assertion.  FINRA has a consistent policy that requires that there be a reasonable basis for all sales and revenue projections. 

As the regulators move forward I think that they will find that a company that intends to market a product that infringes on another company’s patent has an impractical business plan. But not every case will be as clear cut.

Can the Management Deliver?

Investors know that 4 software developers writing code and a CFO do not equal an operating company. It helps if the company has people with experience in the industry in which the company will be operating. At a bare minimum, every company seeking investors should have managers that have experience in managing people. 

With start-ups, it is a red flag if the CEO does not have experience managing a lot of people. It is one thing to get people to work well together and produce the work that needs to be done. It is another in this day and age to comply with often complex workplace rules.

Investors like to see that a company has a marketing director with real experience selling similar products. If the company is not yet ready for a full-time marketing director then the company should at least have someone with marketing experience as an advisor or on the board of directors. For many companies the cost of new customer acquisition is a key metric and may be a foundation for all financial projections.   

I listen when a company tells me that its product will sell millions of units or become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. A company should be able to demonstrate not only that people will want to buy its product but that it can produce it profitably, deliver it efficiently and sustain both.

I always ask about a company’s supply chain.  It is fine if all the company has is a prototype at this point, but if it expects to sell 100,000 units in the first year, it should be ready to explain where the company will get those units, what they will cost and how those units will be distributed.

For a pre-revenue or unprofitable start-up, I always ask the company when, in terms of revenue, will the company breakeven. A company that claims it will see double or triple-digit growth needs to be able to support those claims and demonstrate how and why they will come true.

“If we build it, they will come” is not the best approach for realistic sales and sales growth. Even a start-up should be able to make realistic assumptions based upon proposals give by outside marketing firms.

All of the above is encompassed by FINRA’s rules governing how a Reg. CF funding portal is supposed to operate. The regulations include provisions that are firmly rooted in the idea of investor protection and textbook finance.

New rules allow the funding portals to raise up to $5 million for every company. There has been a significant uptick in funding portal applications.

Small investors are being hyped with the idea that crowdfunding portals are offering opportunities for them to invest in the next Facebook or Amazon that will turn their modest investments into huge profits. The last thing the industry needs is more small companies with dubious products and inexperienced managers competing for investors’ dollars.    

The regulators will never accept the idea that investors in the crowd can be left to fend for themselves or that proper disclosures do not need to be made. Equity crowdfunding is not a caveat emptor marketplace. 

A funding portal is a regulated financial intermediary. It is a very small industry with a single regulator, FINRA. Widespread disregard of those regulations is not good for the industry’s long term health.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Creative Crowdfunding

Creative crowdfunding

A mentor of mine used to refer to the process of preparing a securities offering for public investors as a “craft”. He would explain to me:“Before you can sit down and write the offering based on your clients’ specifications, you need to be able to see the offering through the eyes of the prospective investors.”

Crowdfunding is creative finance.  Crowdfunding comes with endless possibilities for creating a variety of unique financing transactions. Each company sets the terms that they will offer to investors. Investors get to say “no thank you” to those terms if other investments are more appealing.   

Many people who work in crowdfunding don’t know the first thing about finance. This limits their creativity and often dooms a crowdfunding campaign that should have been successful.

Crowdfunding Experts

When speaking with a company seeking an infusion of capital, many crowdfunding “experts” give cookie-cutter advice. Some companies use templates to create their offering instead of lawyers. Those companies will never know that there is usually a better way to approach their financing that will be more attractive to investors and at the same time save them a lot of money.  

Creating an attractive investment for an audience of targeted investors on a crowdfunding platform involves a series of tasks. Much of it involves a lot of time looking at spreadsheets.  If you don’t, at the very least, do the following while preparing your crowdfunding campaign, you are likely wasting your time and money. 

Before I structure an offering I expect to review the company’s current financial position. Only then can we decide whether the financing should be debt or equity, whether it should be on or off balance sheet and whether the offering should be for more or less.

You need to be able to demonstrate how you will use the investors’ money and how that money will generate revenues. Your revenue projections need to be supported by real world data and real world assumptions. “We’re going to capture 50% of a billion dollar market in 2 years” is fantasy, not finance.

Every financing transaction has a risk of default or sub-standard performance. You need to understand the specific risks of your business and how to mitigate those risks. You will need to estimate how much of a reward it will take to compensate your target investors so that they will accept those risks. 

Crowdfunding overwhelmingly operates in the Regulation D market selling private placements to accredited investors.  A great many of the accredited investors who you are likely to pitch for your offering have more likely than not, already been pitched to purchase a private placement.

Since the 1980’s the mainstream stock brokerage industry has sold private placements to millions of individual accredited investors. Various types of real estate offerings are the most popular, followed by energy (oil, gas, and solar), films, entertainment and events and equipment financing. 

For over 40 years the mainstream brokers have been selling investors on the idea that private placements provide passive income. Accredited investors are also used to being pitched that private placements come with higher returns. Most crowdfunding is directed at these same accredited investors. You need to give them the information and the pitch they expect to hear. 

The vast majority of accredited investors are baby boomers. They still control the bulk of the money in the Reg. D market. They have grown up with new tech and new companies and they are not afraid to invest in either. But new tech is always risky. You have to offer a return commensurate with the risk.

Crowdfunding as we know it today began with a rewards based model. A company would sell its product on a platform like Kickstarter and use the proceeds from the sales to manufacture the product. Much of the time, the product never got delivered. 

Revenue Sharing

During 2016-2017 there was a lot of discussion among Crowdfunders about a financing model called “revenue sharing”.  In its basic form, a company would raise money from a pool of investors, manufacture the product and then share the revenue with the investors.

Revenue sharing is actually a mainstream tool of modern finance. Many oil drilling programs pool investors’ money to cover drilling costs with the investors and land owners, sharing in the revenue if and when it strikes oil. 

Many franchisers use a revenue sharing model with their franchisees. The parent gets a percentage of the franchisee’s gross revenue structured as a franchise fee, rent, or a royalty on intellectual property. The parent often provides advertising support or promotions to help build sales.

Accredited investors that have purchased Reg. D offerings are familiar with this “slice of the revenue pie” structure. They understand that they will earn less if their oil well pumps 10 barrels a day than they will if it yields 100 barrels a day.  

As I have already mentioned, there was for a while a lot of discussion about revenue sharing.  Several platforms were going to come on line to specifically offer revenue sharing programs. Revenue sharing is a natural for a crowdfunding audience.  Unfortunately it never really took off in the way that I would have expected.  

The crowdfunding industry is still focused on the “buy equity in the business” model, It has gone out of its way to create derivatives like SAFEs to complicate what should be simple capital raising projects.

The crowdfunding industry needs to accept the fact that businesses with no sales or assets are not “valued” at hundreds of millions of dollars in the real world. Insane valuations actually hurt the crowdfunding industry because they drive away serious investors.  Many of those same companies could use creative revenue sharing models instead of trying to sell equity.    

I recently spoke with a business owner willing to sell 10% of his business for $2 million. He wanted to syndicate a Reg. D offering and raise the money on a crowdfunding platform.  He was having a good year and wanted to expand.

The company sells an automated HR suite to businesses with at least 100 employees.  Its customers pay monthly, per employee. The company wants to use the $2 million to open more accounts, each with a large number of employees.    

The company knows the cost of account acquisition and expects at least $10 million in additional revenue in the first year from its $2 million expenditure. Those new accounts are likely to stay customers for many years. 

Instead of selling 10% of the company, I suggested that he share the income stream with investors, pay them back quickly with a generous return and move on. It makes perfect sense.

The company might give the investors 60% of the revenue from these new accounts until the investors get distributions equal to $3 million and then cut them off. They can pay the investors more or less and carry the payments into the future, if they prefer. The company should easily be able to attract $2 million with the promise of paying back $3 million in only a few months.

In this case I would advise the company to take the investors into a separate limited partnership or LLC. Investors like this structure for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that can get paid on the gross sales. They are not concerned about executive pay or management issues. How the company spends its 40% the first year is not the investors’ concern. 

The company does not have to deal with investors on its books and all that entails. This relationship operates and terminates by contract.  If the company wants to sell 10% of its stock later, it will get more if the sales have been increased by $10 million per year.  

I have seen many advertising campaigns funded this way. I have seen companies with multiple products fund one product or even one cargo of its product this way. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” have never recommended this type of revenue sharing arrangement because this type of offering rarely shows up on crowdfunding platforms.

This $2 million gets you $3 million model does not work for every company, but there are other “fund the transactions, not the company” models that may.  These are only one alternative to the traditional equity method. There are others.

As I said, crowdfunding offers opportunities for creative finance, but you need to understand finance, in all its forms, before you can really get creative. 


If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

How are things, really?

How are things, really?

I speak with hundreds of people every year. Most are trying to figure out where their particular cog fits into the greater, global, capitalist machine. 

Some people seek me out to share their ideas and business plans, others ask the kind of questions that people always ask someone who served on a business school faculty. Many have already achieved financial success, others are just starting out.

I take these calls in part because they offer me the opportunity to ask a lot of questions to a widely disparate group of people. I get to consider what is going on in the world from many different perspectives. 

Studs Terkel

The result is a Studs Terkel view of the global marketplace.  In Working, Terkel told the stories of various working individuals to paint a picture of the complex relationships that people have with their jobs and with their employers.

Every year I get to hear the stories told by hundreds of business owners and executives, founders of start-ups and investors of all sizes. No two stories are exactly alike.

What are they saying now? As always people see what they want to see. 

There should be a lot of fear, doubt and hesitancy when a pandemic of this magnitude slows the markets so quickly, especially when so much of economic activity has simply been turned off. There are clearly a great many people who are suffering from the effects of the virus if not the virus itself.

No one should minimize the overall economic effects. A great many businesses will go out of business. A great many of the people who are now unemployed will never be rehired to the same job.

Overall, most of the people with whom I am speaking are realists and therefore optimistic.  Rational people understand that if they stay indoors they, and their family members are not likely to contract the virus or die from it. Rational people count their blessings at times like this.

Some people are complaining that working from home is too difficult because their kids are under foot or need their attention.  If you can’t make your kids understand that you need some “alone time” to get your work done, that is on you, not them. 

I wrote my first book after my kids went to bed, often working between midnight and 3AM.  Why? Because I wanted to write a book and I knew I would not get it done if I made excuses.

There are a lot of people sitting at home binge watching this or that which is fine. There are also people who are taking courses online, brushing up on accounting or marketing because when this is over, they want to start a business or get a better job. 

I got a packaged delivered yesterday and asked the delivery man how things were going. He replied over his shoulder that he had been laid off and very happy to have this new job. In his mind, despite being laid off and earning less, his glass was half full.  

You cannot turn on the TV without seeing the incredible jobs being done by doctors, nurses and first responders. They are true heroes.

But we also need to recognize the 20 something working as a cashier in the local market. She told me that all her regular customers are like family.  She has no idea why the market has no eggs as chickens are obviously still laying them. But she has a kind, uplifting word for everyone who passes through her line. “This will be over soon” she told me, “and then we will see what those chickens were up to.”      

Make no mistake, this will end.  Your life, after it is over, will largely depend upon how you act now.

I got a call this week from a former client, a chef who I helped to raise the money for his restaurant a few years back, He wanted the name of a good bankruptcy lawyer because he knows he is not going to be able to re-open. A lot of blood, sweat and tears down the drain.

At the same time, he asked me to help him start raising funds for the new restaurant he wants to open next year, That is the thing about Americans, when the shit knocks us on our ass, we get up, dust ourselves off and keep going.

He truly feels badly for the wait staff and kitchen crew he just laid off.  But he also understands that they got paid from the first day the restaurant was open. It took a year until he could draw his first check. That is the nature of capitalism. Business owners take the risks that create the jobs for others.

Worker Bees

How are things, really?

I read an opinion piece this week end by a disgruntled “influencer“ who was up in arms that the government was bailing out banks and profiteers and not the poor, worker bees who actually do the work.  These people, he reminded us, live paycheck to paycheck and have no savings.

He is certainly correct about that, but that is not the banks’ fault. They are always happy to open a small savings accounts.  It is up to the worker bees to spend a little less and save a little more. That advice has been around since I was in grade school.

I feel really bad for the author who apparently feels helpless because nothing bad has ever happened in his lifetime. I watched friends pulled into war, to die in the jungle. Shit happens and it happens to every generation.

I spent 5 months living on the cancer floor of a major hospital. When this passes, visit the cancer patients in your local hospital, many have no visitors. If there was ever a time to count all your blessings, this is it.

The most important lesson I learned from my experience with cancer is that the only thing that you can do in life is to play the hand you are dealt. If you are afraid or angry right now well that too, is on you. 

If you do nothing else in the next few weeks you can help out your neighbors. I don’t have to tell you why you should do that, you all went to Sunday school. You will be amazed how helping others will help you realize how fortunate you are.

And please ignore the angry political types of all persuasions on TV who are jumping up and down screaming and assigning blame to others. If this group would just sit down and shut the hell up they might be pleasantly surprised to see all the decent people around the US who are quietly giving each other a helping hand. 

That is what is really going on.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

Or you can book a time to talk with me HERE

Power To The People

power to the people

I started this Power To The People article in longhand on a yellow legal pad which is something that I rarely do any more. I would have been doing something else but the utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had made a business decision to turn off my power and 1 million of my neighbors throughout northern California.

There were, at that moment, several wildfires burning in northern California that started from sparks emanating from PG&E’s equipment. By turning off the power PG&E was saying that they did not trust that their equipment was not a threat to public safety. 

There was good reason for PG&E’s managers to lack trust in the equipment the company was using.  Much of PG&E’s equipment is worn out, outdated and has been failing frequently for years often with catastrophic results.  It cannot be reasonable for any company to know that its equipment is dangerous and allow that dangerous equipment to stay in use.

In 2010, a PG&E gas line that snaked through a residential neighborhood south of San Francisco, ruptured and blew up killing 7 people, injuring many others and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.  The regulator’s investigation revealed that the incident was caused by PG&E’s failure to follow accepted industry practice when constructing the section of pipe that failed which is pretty straightforward.   The regulator noted other specific deficiency’s and also “a systemic failure of PG&E’s corporate culture to emphasize safety over profits.”

Camp Fire

More recently, in 2018, the Camp Fire killed 85 people and caused as much as $20 billion in property losses. The town of Paradise California was all but destroyed.  It appears that this fire was ignited by a PG&E transmission line.  A number of other smaller fires have been ignited by PG&E equipment over the years.

power to the people

When the power went back on last week a lot of people had questions. Intentionally turning off the power to 1 million customers is a big deal. 

Early on the company was trying to pat itself on the back for avoiding a greater disaster. It claimed it was left with little choice given the “historic” winds that were blowing over its transmission lines. But that was not the whole story. 

Management 

It seems that PG&E’s management had identified the power lines most in need of intervention, developed a plan to deal with those areas and then failed to execute. Management knew that their failure to remove trees and brush from the vicinity of certain transmission and distribution lines significantly increased the likelihood that their equipment would spark and ignite a fire. 

The “official” reason for PG&E’s failure to remove the brush, that they knew they had to be remove, may change with time as the lawyers get involved. For now, it seems that the company is saying that it could not hire enough “skilled” labor to get “all” of the brush removed. 

In sum, PG&E turned off the power and now argues it was the correct course of action because it is “better to be safe, than sorry” even if they created the unsafe situation in the first place. If there was a real danger of additional fires because of defects in their equipment, then arguably, turning off the power was a reasonable act. But it would have been far easier just to cut the trees and remove the brush that the company knew it needed to remove.

It would be even more reasonable for PG&E to replace or bury the transmission and distribution lines so they could not spark in the first place.  That would require a multi-year, multi-billion dollar solution that does not seem to be on the table even though it is long over-due. 

Monopoly

What makes PG&E different from other companies is that it is a sanctioned and regulated monopoly. If you live in its service area, they are the dominant regional source of gas and electric power. There is no competition. You pay what they charge.

Public utilities are regulated. PG&E must operate within the guidelines of multiple regulators. The California Public Utilities Commission approves the rates it can charge.

At the same time, PG&E is a public company owned by its shareholders. Shareholders have expectations that management tries to satisfy. In this case, the shareholders want steady dividends.

The current problem at PG&E can be summed up in one sentence: The management deferred maintenance and new equipment costs so that they could maintain profitability and continue to pay dividends to its shareholders.

In the traditional view, power utility company shares were suitable investments for “widows and orphans” because they paid a steady dividend and because they were selling electric power which was always in demand. That traditional view may no longer be sustainable. 

The funds that PG&E had allocated for brush removal, but did not spend, went directly to its bottom line. But for its current bankruptcy status, those funds would have been available to pay shareholder dividends. In the last 10 years aggregate dividends paid out to PG&E shareholders are in the neighborhood of $7 billion.  

PG&E’s monopoly to provide power was granted by the State with the expectation that PG&E would deliver the power while at the same time taking the proper steps to do so without ruptured gas pipes or electrical fires.  When you are dealing with fires that cause death and destruction, the standard of care exercised by the management should be very high.

I can appreciate that the 85 deaths at the Camp Fire last year were on the minds of the managers who pulled the plug this year. But who has taken responsibility for those deaths?  PG&E’s response to the Camp Fire deaths and its liability from it has been to file for bankruptcy.

If that same fire had been started by an arsonist, incarceration of the arsonist would be the desired result. Who will go to jail for the Camp Fire 85?    

Law students learn that corporations are legal “fictions”; entities created by law that can own property or operate a business in its own name while shielding the shareholders from personal liability for the corporation’s acts.  But that does not free the managers of any corporation from penalties if they are grossly negligent and people get killed.  

PG&E managers know that its equipment sparks fires. They know that they can reduce the fire danger by cutting trees and clearing brush.  They failed to execute this in the year after the Camp Fire because they refused to throw enough money at it to get it done. Instead they just turned the power off.  

Forgive my choice of words, but if killing 85 people last year doesn’t light a fire under management’s ass to get it right this year, then what will?   There is no way to look at this and not understand that whatever else it has done, management has demonstrated that it lacks what it takes to run this company. 

To understand the immediacy of the problem, consider that the fire season in northern California has just begun and will run into next spring. PG&E equipment can and in all probability will spark dozens of fires in the next few months.  More lives may yet be lost this year and no one from PG&E is confident that they have a fix for the problem next year. The fix costs money and PG&E is in bankruptcy.

The massive prophylactic blackouts are certainly no long term solution. Repeated outages and business disruptions hit smaller businesses and their employees the hardest. If thousands of small businesses are repeatedly closed for a week at a time, many will not survive. Many employees taking that much unpaid time off are going to have difficulty paying their rent.

Obviously a long term solution is necessary.  The need for natural gas and electricity in California will continue to increase with its population in the next 20-30 years. However California generates electric power in the future, that power will still need to be distributed and it is the distribution system that is already over worked and failing.  

The management, the shareholders and the customers all have skin in this game. Because PG&E’s problems will be resolved in the bankruptcy court, it is logical to believe that the senior managers who are most culpable for the losses will get golden parachutes or large, unearned bonuses. The shareholders will get what is left over of the business, and the customers will get nothing and pay the costs of any restructuring. That is how bankruptcies work. Something more is needed. 

If part of the problem has been paying dividends to shareholders with money that should have been used for maintenance, then it makes sense to eliminate the shareholders. I am still a free market capitalist, but this is a monopoly, a market aberration caused by government intervention, so a free market solution is not necessarily wise. 

PG&E might come out of bankruptcy owned by the State, or as a quasi-private corporation modeled after other government owned power companies like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The TVA is a one example of a how the government generates and sells electric power. Its business model clearly works at least to the point that it delivers power without causing massive fires in its service area.

The TVA is a product of the Great Depression. It was intended to be an integral part of the economic development of the area.  And yes, detractors claimed it was Socialism when it began.

PG&E might also emerge from bankruptcy as a co-op which would essentially be owned by its customers.  Those customers want cheap, consistent power without interruptions or fires.  They are more likely to take a longer view than any managers looking at paying a dividend to shareholders every quarter.

Both of these ownership models have been used successfully by power companies in other parts of the country.  Either would be a reasonable approach for a company that should be spending money on maintenance and infrastructure rather than dividends.

I suspect that a lot will be written about these outages and their effect on the economy and on the residents both in the fire zones and the blackout zones.  In my mind one obvious truth is that the managers of PG&E are really not up to the task. The search for their replacements should be the first order of business.

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Sex in Economics

sex in economics

When I was teaching Economics back in the 1990s, I was fortunate to have students who had gone to high school in dozens of different countries. These students had different experiences and had functioned in markets that were often driven by local custom and culture. Their questions and comments helped me to understand a lot about the expanding global marketplace.

When I wanted to create an example to illustrate the application of a theory that I was trying to explain, I always tried to create one that everyone would understand regardless of their country of origin. Consequently, I often talked about sex. 

I admit up front that this may have contributed to my being ranked as one of the more popular members of the adjunct faculty at the university. It also seemed to keep the students awake, which, when teaching a subject like Economics can be task number one.

Economics

Classical economics teaches that consumers are rational. It teaches that because most consumers have a limited amount of money to spend each month, they will organize their spending accordingly. First, they will allocate their funds to necessities (rent, food, clothing, and transportation) and then to items that are necessary but which can be put off (dentist, auto repairs). Any funds that are left over can be spent on items that the consumer may want to buy, but could literally live without (sporting events, vacations). 

In order to get the most “bang” from the bucks they have, consumers should be good shoppers.  They should compare the prices of like products and purchase the least expensive ones that suit their needs. In theory, it is a rational process throughout.

Most consumers acknowledge they should allocate some of their monthly earnings to savings, but few will. Most also acknowledge that they should spend no more than they earn each month.  In practice, that effectively went out of style with the advent of the credit card.

Today, the market is awash in consumer debt, a factor that the classical economists could not consider.

I tried to focus the students on the underlying question: “How could they induce consumers to make an irrational decision to buy their product?”  These were, after all, business school students. 

For most products the answer is advertising. The modern “in your face” daily onslaught of ads that encourage people to purchase products were also not considered by the classical economists for obvious reasons.  The textbook I used, followed the classical view, which, to my thinking, might not give students the whole picture.  

The purpose of any advertisement is to make consumers purchase the product. Many ads will stress a product’s “value” which speaks to our rational side.  But even those ads will frequently feature attractive people making the pitch.  Using actors who are “attractive” does not change the message. But it is likely to get more eyeballs on the ad. 

Sex Sells

Indeed much about advertising is rooted in sex. There is a constant, undisputed theme in advertising: “sex sells”.

sex in economics

I could not, in my mind, conjure up a source of more irrational behavior than the human sex drive. It is not “just the things we do for love”. Sex and our desire for it motivates a huge portion of the spending that people do, even if they have limited funds that might rationally be spent elsewhere. 

For example, sex is at the root of the global fashion and cosmetics industries. These represent trillions of dollars of annual commerce.  And it is not new. Evidence of consumers’ desire for fashion, cosmetics and adornments goes back into pre-history. 

Why would anyone teach that consumer purchases were rational when so much of it was driven by irrational emotions?  And this does not even touch purchases that are made based on other emotional responses such as fear, greed or envy. I thought that perhaps the rational consumer of the textbook who was focused on the price might be a myth. 

I caught up with Richard Posner’s Sex and Reason (1992) a few years after it was published. His well researched and well presented book came to the conclusion that the human sex drive was rooted in our biology and that acting upon it was perfectly rationale behavior.  

I still have difficulty in reconciling the perfectly rational price theory with less than rational human behavior.  Over time I have come to believe that the latter might actually be underestimated as the determining factor for our purchase decisions. In this regards, I think that business school students might need a lot more sex, at least in their curriculum. 

I liked to challenge my students. I asked the class why so many consumers would reach for a fragrance that was priced at $350 per bottle. People buy fragrances to attract a partner for sex. Would not a fragrance that cost $60 get the job done? 

Vegas Baby

I would ask: If a sex worker in Las Vegas charges $500 to perform a sex act when a sex worker in Brazil might charge $20 for the same service, what can you infer from this data? Yes it is about overhead and what the market will bear, but it is also an introduction to globalization. Change sex worker to software developer and you will see what I mean.

sex in economics

Cable television and the internet itself were once brand new technologies that were slowly beginning to find acceptance from the general public.  In both cases each got an early shot in the arm from one source, pornography.

On cable, networks like HBO screened soft core porn after midnight. It is what made the cost of cable acceptable to many new viewers and indeed what attracted many new viewers. Data at the time suggested that a lot of people liked to watch in bed. If you need a reference go to Wikipedia and look up Sylvia Kristel. 

I think that everyone knows that there is a lot of porn on the internet, but not everyone appreciates how large a business it represents. MindGeek, parent of Pornhub, does not report its revenues but measuring them in the billions would not seem inappropriate. It may not be as large in gross sales as Amazon, but MindGeek’s cost of goods is minimal. 

Sex is even prevalent in finance. I wrote an article about crowdfunding back in 2015 when it was still new and I was just beginning to look at it with a critical eye.  Investment crowdfunding was and is about getting people to look at your offering.

I wrote at the time: “If eyeballs are what you need to successfully crowdfund a company, it would seem logical then that the easiest company to crowdfund might be one selling a line of lingerie. No crowdfunding consultant worth his/her fee would likely tell the company not to include its product catalog in its presentation to investors if that catalog had pictures of models wearing lingerie.” About one year later a lingerie company in London started a crowdfunding campaign that followed that advice and raised all of the funds that they were seeking.  

Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll

The music industry certainly uses sex to make sales. I grew up at a time when Elvis Presley appeared on television from the waist up because much of the audience had “issues” with the way in which he moved his hips.  Currently, it’s obvious that much of the music and entertainment industries have seen that portion of the audience as far out of the mainstream. A music video without some sexual reference? Hard to find near the top of the charts.  

A few years back, I caught an interview of Mick Jagger that was being conducted by a business reporter. Jagger has flaunted sex and sexuality throughout a very long career. The Rolling Stones were starting a tour and the topic was the economics of touring.

mick jagger

Jagger suggested that the tour itself would probably net the band over $100 million, not counting the record sales. The reporter asked how the band could achieve that kind of financial success from traveling around and playing music. Let’s face it, very few musical groups have had that kind of sustained success.

Jagger responded that he had just paid attention in school. The response made me smile. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.    

I hope that my students were paying attention too.

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

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Hey FINRA- Look Over Here

Finra

FINRA, the stockbrokerage industry’s regulator, often does an absolutely atrocious job of policing its members. It was not always so, but in the last few years FINRA has clearly turned a blind eye to some really outrageous conduct that is going on right under its nose.

There are two distinct types of scams that have been prevalent in the stockbrokerage industry for decades. The first involve bad investments that come down to the registered representatives from the corporate level. These scams would never be sold to investors if the firms had conducted an adequate due diligence investigation.

FINRA has a fairly high bar for its member firms when it comes to due diligence on a private placement. It tells its member firms that they may not rely blindly upon the issuer for information concerning a company, nor rely on the information provided by the issuer and its counsel in lieu of conducting its own reasonable investigation.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s a company called Towers Financial was selling pools of consumer debt through dozens of FINRA firms. It was ultimately revealed that the company never owned the debt and it was just a Ponzi scheme. About 200,000 investors lost close to $250 million.

The lesson of Towers Financial was that it is virtually impossible to conduct a due diligence investigation on a company claiming to hold large amounts of consumer debt without a full audit of its books.   Most companies of that size would have an audit as a matter of course. Towers was an exception. A lot of people suffered because of it. FINRA (the NASD back then) never suggested (or mandated) that its members should have been concerned about the lack of an audit. 

Fast forward to the mid-2000s. A company called Medical Capital also claimed to have pools of consumer debt which it really did not have. FINRA members helped the company raise over $1 billion from thousands of unsuspecting customers. It too was a Ponzi scheme and it too was unaudited.

FINRA did very little in the way of enforcement and again refused to simply direct its members to require an audit of any pool of consumer paper. An audit is the only way any firm can verify what the issuer is claiming.  Several of the state securities administrators raised the same questions but the brokerage industry refuses to get the point.

Last week I looked at another company for whom about 60 FINRA member firms raised a little over a $1 billion. Was it audited? No. Is it a Ponzi scheme?  No one has said so officially yet, but there are red flags everywhere. I would hope that FINRA would be all over it, but I know that they will not.  FINRA refuses to see these types of scams even when you rub their noses in them. When public customers keep losing a billion here and a billion there the regulator is clearly asleep.

Case on point.

When I was filing claims on behalf of public customers with FINRA for arbitration, it was never my practice to send a copy of the complaint to FINRA’s enforcement division.  I would only do so if I thought the offending conduct on the part of the broker or the firm was particularly obvious, onerous or both. The very last time that I sent a copy of an arbitration claim to FINRA enforcement they bobbled the ball.

The claim was on behalf of an elderly investor who had forked over about $600,000 to purchase interests in a private placement which would own an office building in the mid-West. Within a year the investors discovered that the roof leaked and that they were on the hook to replace it.  The FINRA member firms that sold the offering had not bothered to have the building inspected as part of their due diligence investigation. Most people would never buy a home without an inspection report.

The offering also described the sponsor as a “successful” developer when in fact his only prior development had ended in bankruptcy with many of the sub-contractors unpaid. The sponsor did not even hold a degree from the school listed in the private placement disclosure documents.

I documented all of this in the claim with appropriate exhibits and sent a copy to FINRA’s enforcement department.  The FINRA staffer who responded told me that the due diligence that the firm had conducted was just fine and that he felt no further action against the firm was necessary. 

I composed a response that expressed my feelings that the FINRA staffer was a ****** idiot. My partner at the time correctly decided that he would not allow me to send the letter because, in his words, you can’t fix stupid. 

Another case on point. 

A little more than a year ago I was asked to look at a series of arbitration claims that were being filed at FINRA against a small group of small brokerage firms located in the New York, Long Island and New Jersey metro area.  The attorney who sent them to me wanted my help in preparing the claims for hearing and my testimony as an expert witness (yes, I still do that) regarding the substance of the claims and the supervision of the brokers. What I discovered was conduct that was obviously intentional and truly disgusting on the part of the brokers and the firms.

There are apparently dozens of disparate customers voicing the same complaints against these firms. It was obvious that the brokers were cold-calling older businessmen and retirees in the mid-West. Quite a few listed their occupations as farmers.

The customers were complaining that the brokers had sold them on the idea that they were superior stock pickers who were and who would continue to make substantial returns for their clients.  Yes, I know that most readers of this blog would not fall for that, but apparently hundreds of public customers did.

Once the accounts were opened each customer complained that they had lost money because the brokers had churned their accounts and had made unauthorized trades. Of all of the claims that customers can make against their stockbrokers, these two in particular, excessive and unauthorized trading are the easiest allegations to prove or disprove. 

In the stockbrokerage industry a broker cannot enter a trade in a customer’s account without the customer’s prior approval. In the normal course of business a broker will get permission from the customer to buy or sell a security, hang up the phone and enter the order.  So there should always be a record of the phone call showing the time it began and the time it ended and also a time-stamped record of when the order was entered and when it was executed.

I asked the attorney if the firms had produced records of the phone calls where the brokers and customers had spoken prior to every trade. Not a one.  Obviously the firms and especially the Compliance Directors know that the trades were not authorized.

Churning or excessive trading has been a problem in the brokerage business for at least as long as my tenure in it.   If you are “investing” in a company then you are betting that the share price will move up as the company’s earnings improve. In the normal course it will take until the company’s next quarterly report before you and the market know if you were correct, often longer.

Investors will usually buy a stock and hold it for three or six months or longer. If your portfolio is worth $1 million, then you might turn over (buy and sell) its value two or three times a year. More than that is always suspect.

Traders, on the other hand, buy and sell stocks every day. That is why they gravitate to firms that charge very low commissions per trade. When you see a customer at a full commission firm turning their account over more than once every other month, they are either really foolish or the broker is crooked and taking advantage of them. In the records that I reviewed the customers were paying hundreds of dollars in commissions for each trade.

According to FINRA’s own Brokercheck™ reports there are today ten or so firms in New York, Long Island and New Jersey that have multiple brokers with multiple claims from public customers whose accounts may have been turned over more than 50 times a year, generating millions of dollars in commissions. FINRA tells customers to always look at the Brokercheck™ reports, but apparently its own staff fails to do so.

I see all these scum brokers ripping off unsuspecting customers just by reading the arbitration claims. The Compliance Directors and owners of these small firms certainly see them. The clearing firms are getting paid for every trade so they must see it too. Some of these claims are from 2015 and the brokers are still at their desks churning accounts every day.

Back in the mid-1990s the NY Attorney General published a report on small firms in NYC, Long Island and New Jersey that were churning accounts. The report suggested that several were associated with organized crime. Different firms are involved today, but the ones that allow these brokers to make unauthorized or excessive trades are still stealing money from public customers. They may or may not be “organized” but they are certainly criminals.

What will it take for FINRA to take its head out of the sand and close down these firms and bar these brokers, compliance directors and firm owners from the securities business? FINRA gives a lot of lip service to enforcement. This repugnant conduct calls for action.

(PS- If FINRA enforcement or any state securities administrator would like a list of these miscreant firms and brokers, just let me know). 

If you would like to discuss this or any other related topic, then please book a time with me here

Crowdfunding after ICOBox

Crowdfunding after ICOBox

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

I have been a huge fan of the potential of investment crowdfunding since the SEC’s first experiments in the late 1990’s allowing issuers to use the internet to sell their securities directly to investors.  There was a lot of discussion among issuers, regulators, and the traditional Wall Street firms at the time. However, very few investors were included in those discussions.  There was a clear consensus that investors were entitled to the same “full disclosure” that the purchasers of any new issue would receive. 

The JOBS Act in 2012 codified the use of the internet as a way of offering new issues of securities to the public. Nothing in the Act, or the subsequent regulations suggested that investors who purchased securities on a crowdfunding platform would not be entitled to the same disclosures.  The SEC’s very first enforcement action against an offering done on a crowdfunding platform, SEC. v. Ascenergy, confirmed this. 

The SEC has been doling out sanctions against people associated with the Woodbridge Group of Companies, a high end real estate developer and apparent Ponzi scheme. Woodbridge claimed to have a wealth management company in its group that raised money for mortgages and bridge loans.  The wealth management company hired dozens of highly commissioned salespeople.  Many of these salespeople claimed to operate “financial” firms that looked like legitimate financial firms.  The salespeople were telling investors on their websites that these investments were “safe” and “secure”. 

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

In all, Woodbridge raised more than $1 billion from several thousand individual investors. The SEC noted that one of the salespeople they sanctioned was a self-described “media influencer” who made frequent guest appearances on radio, television and podcasts nationwide touting the safety, security and earning potential of Woodbridge securities to unsuspecting investors. He also touted Woodbridge’s securities on the internet through his own website.

Crowdfunding After ICoBox

The JOBS Act clearly anticipates that securities offerings will be posted on

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

The JOBS Act clearly anticipates that securities offerings will be posted on platforms and websites and investors will be solicited by e-mails. What those postings and e-mails say is regulated. There are things that you can and cannot say to potential investors. There are also things that you must say.

Regulators understand the difference between “posting” and “touting”.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the crowdfunding industry understands this.  Regulators are beginning to take action against the crowdfunding platforms that do not follow the rules. 

This month the securities regulator in Kentucky entered a Cease and Desist Order against a company called Kelcas Corporation which was making false claims about oil wells it was drilling. The Kentucky Order calls out a specific string of e-mails with a representative of the company selling the investment to a potential investor. 

The Order repeatedly notes that the company was using LinkedIn to identify and connect with potential investors. It refers to a post on LinkedIn, specifically seeking investors for an “oil well investment opportunity”. Posts like these are common on LinkedIn and other social media platforms.  No one is suggesting that LinkedIn has any liability for allowing this post or others like it, at least not yet.

Crowdfunding after ICOBox

A day or two after the action in Kentucky against Kelcas, the SEC brought an enforcement action against a crowdfunding platform called ICOBox.  According to the SEC’s complaint, ICOBox raised funds in 2017 to develop a platform for initial coin offerings by selling, in an unregistered offering, roughly $14.6 million of “ICOS” tokens to over 2,000 investors.

The complaint further alleges that ICOBox failed to register as a broker but acted as one by “facilitating” initial coin offerings that raised more than $650 million for about 35 companies that listed their offerings on its platform.

The investors who put up their funds to invest with Woodbridge, Kelcas and ICOBox and the 35 companies listed on ICOBox were sold unregistered securities issued under the same SEC rules. In each case the internet was the primary vehicle by which investors were solicited and the primary vehicle used to provide the fraudulent information to the investors.

What separates LinkedIn from ICOBox or any other website or crowdfunding platform that connects private placements with potential investors? In reality, and as a matter of law, not very much.

It comes down to the SEC’s use of the word “facilitate”.  It does not mean that the facilitator actually sells the securities. Both federal and state statutes govern not just the sale of securities, but specifically how they are offered and to whom they are offered.

In the case of ICOBox the allegations are that the platform was actively involved in marketing of the offerings that they listed.  ICOBox promised to pitch the offerings to their media contacts, develop content for promotional materials and promote the listed companies at conferences.  The SEC included this in the complaint because the SEC thinks these acts constitute “facilitation”.

ICOBox is not the only crowdfunding platform that has helped to promote the offerings it lists. I get e-mails all the time from platforms inviting me to look at specific listings.  A lot of those e-mails and a lot of the offerings they promote make outrageous claims and promises.

The SEC also complained that ICOBox claimed it was “ ensuring the soundness of the business model” of the listed companies. Other crowdfunding platforms claim to “vet” or “investigate” the companies they list.  Many of those platforms have no idea what they are talking about. These platforms are lending their reputation to each offering. That also facilitates the offerings.  

Where does that leave LinkedIn? LinkedIn does not claim to investigate any offerings posted on their site.  It does however sell paid advertising.  Does LinkedIn have a duty to refuse to carry ads for securities offerings that it thinks are fraudulent?  What if LinkedIn ads generated the most sales leads for an offering or if the ads were specifically targeted at people LinkedIn identified as “real estate investors”? 

LinkedIn joined the ban on ICO ads by the major social media platforms in 2018, not because ICO ads caused cancer, but because they were largely fraudulent.  Would LinkedIn refuse to accept an ad from a small real estate syndicator if they had a reasonable belief that the sponsor did not own the property they were selling? 

What would a jury tell the “little old lady” investor who handed a few hundred thousand dollars to a scam like Woodbridge if the investor was introduced to the company on LinkedIn and testified that the company was brought to her attention by a LinkedIn “influencer” whom she followed? 

I read the ICOBox case as a clear warning from the SEC to the crowdfunding platforms to get their act together.  If the platform stays within the regulatory white lines, then regulators should leave it alone.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that many crowdfunding platforms have no idea what the rules require. They are setting themselves up to be defendants in enforcement actions by regulators or civil actions by disgruntled investors. Platforms that do not have a securities lawyer on staff or on retainer will be easy targets.

If you would like to discuss any of this article further with me then please contact me directly here

Crowdfunding After ICOBox