Archive for November, 2010

Behind the GM Euphoria

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Wall Street is always looking for a reason to be euphoric, and it found one this week in the return to the market of General Motors.

Less than two years after filing for bankruptcy and being taken over by the federal government in a $50 billion bailout, the automaker became the darling of investors and commanded a surprisingly high initial price of $33 a share.

Many of those investors had apparently not read the voluminous S-1 Registration Statement that GM filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. If they had, they would have found a document that in its current iteration requires more than 13,000 words to summarize the risk factors facing the company.

Companies are required to be especially candid in warning investors what they may be facing when buying into a company whose shares are being offered for the first time (after its transformation GM is technically a new firm). But this prospectus is amazing. Here are some reasons why.

  • Acknowledging that its current chief executive and chief financial officer are from other fields, the S-1 says the company’s prospects depend on their ability to “quickly learn the automotive industry.”
  • The document reveals : “We have determined that our disclosure controls and procedures and our internal control over financial reporting are currently not effective. The lack of effective internal controls could materially adversely affect our financial condition and ability to carry out our business plan.”
  • The company admits that it has an image problem: “The automotive industry, particularly in the U.S., is very competitive, and our competitors have been very successful in persuading customers that previously purchased our products to purchase their vehicles instead as is reflected by our loss of market share over the past three years. We believe that this is due, in part, to a negative public perception of our products in relation to those of some of our competitors.”

Inexperienced management, poor financial controls and a negative public perception don’t seem to constitute a foolproof recipe for success. But there’s much more to the recitation of risk factors, including the fact that even after the stock offering the U.S. government will remain by far the company’s largest shareholder.

GM reminds potential investors that its bailout came with some strings attached. For one thing, the company is supposed to take steps to maintain its U.S. workforce at or near existing levels. If GM is a shining example of a renaissance of American manufacturing, as some observers would have us believe, it shouldn’t be a problem to maintain jobs in the USA, especially in light of the concessions that members of the United Auto Workers union consented to in order for the bailout to proceed.

But GM’s management hints that it might be interested in even cheaper labor abroad. The S-1’s summary of the company’s current business strategy includes the following:

Enhance manufacturing flexibility. We primarily produce vehicles in locations where we sell them and we have significant manufacturing capacity in medium- and low-cost countries. We intend to maximize capacity utilization across our production footprint to meet demand without requiring significant additional capital investment.

That sounds like a plan to expand foreign rather than domestic production. Elsewhere the company seems to be complaining when it notes that the federal government “may have a greater interest in promoting U.S. economic growth and jobs than other stockholders of the Company.”

GM’s management also bemoans the fact that “restrictions in our labor agreements could limit our ability to pursue or achieve cost savings through restructuring initiatives.”

In other words, the new GM is beginning to sound a lot like the old GM: blaming unionized workers for problems caused by management failures and market conditions. And like its predecessor, the new GM seems to be itching to dump more of those workers in favor of cheap labor abroad. This may be the main reason it is so eager to bring the federal role to an end.

If cost cutting on the backs of workers — rather than real innovation and competent management — is to be the focus of the new GM, it will probably end up in the same mess as its predecessor.

The investor excitement about the new GM may be good news for the federal government, but it could turn out to be just another market bubble.

Final irony: one of the big beneficiaries of the GM initial offering is Goldman Sachs, which in July agreed to pay the feds $550 million to settle charges of having deceived investors. Goldman is making about $9 million as one of GM’s underwriters.

Full Graphic Disclosure

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Forget Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Federal regulators want people to think of disease, birth defects and death when they pick up a package of cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration, implementing legislation passed by Congress last year, has just released three dozen proposed enhanced warning labels that manufacturers would have to print on each pack of cancer sticks.

In the place of the plain text warnings that have appeared on tobacco packaging for years, these labels would be much larger and much more visually striking. The proposals include, for example, photos of a smoker in an open coffin, a mother blowing cigarette smoke at her infant child, and a sickly cancer victim.

The main objective of the warnings is to encourage existing smokers to quit and the dissuade children from picking up the dangerous habit. But apart from consumer behavior modification, the labels can be seen as a form of disclosure—disclosure of the harmful effects of a product.

The need for bold messages about deleterious aspects of the things we buy is not limited to cigarettes. It might make sense to apply the FDA’s approach to a whole range of goods and services. For example:

  • SUV models shown to be prone to rollovers should come not just with a plain-text sticker showing miles per gallon, but also full-color photos of mangled vehicles with bleeding drivers and passengers.
  • Electric bills sent by utilities relying on coal-fired power plants should be required to include photographs of floods, droughts and other effects of catastrophic climate change.
  • The pumps at gas stations should be adorned with photographs of oil spills and refinery disasters.
  • A variety of products sold by Wal-Mart should have packaging containing images of the oppressive Chinese sweatshops in which they were produced.
  • Stores selling gold jewelry should display photographs showing the despoiled land around the cyanide-leaching facilities in which the precious metal is mined.
  • Producers of dangerous pharmaceuticals should be required not just to mention possible injurious side effects, which most people have tuned out, but to show images of actual victims.
  • Health insurance providers should have to send out pictures of policyholders who died because an expensive treatment was rejected by the company.
  • Perhaps manufacturers of the worst junk food should be required to air commercials with actors who are morbidly obese.
  • And, of course, gun sellers should have to hand out gory photos of victims of accidental discharges.

Given the exalted status of commercial free speech in this country, these ideas could never come to pass. Yet there is still a serious issue to address: How do we turn dry data about corporate harms into messages people pay attention to?

The objective, however, is not just to change consumer behavior but also that of producers. All disclosure is meant to highlight an activity that is subject to abuse and hopefully curb those abuses. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory is designed to get manufacturers to clean up their production processes – and has had a positive impact. Campaign contribution disclosure is meant discourage the big-money takeover of elections (there’s obviously been a lot less progress on that front, especially now that much corporate electoral spending can take place anonymously). Disclosure of executive compensation is supposed to check the relentless march toward lavish CEO salaries, bonuses and stock options (another less than rousing success).

The fact that disclosure does not immediately cure the problem it is meant to highlight does not undermine the case for transparency. It may simply mean that the form of the disclosure is not compelling enough. That’s the beauty of the FDA approach to cigarettes.

In replacing the misleading feel-good images that marketers have long sought to associate with even the most noxious products, the aggressive warning labels begin to force corporations to be honest about what they sell and consumers to come to grips with the true nature of much of what they consume. This form of anti-advertising may begin to liberate us from the illusions of our manufactured desires.

The Real Cost of Obama’s Trip to India

Friday, November 5th, 2010

The rightwing media machine is up in arms about a dubious report that the cost of President Obama’s trip to India will turn out to be more than $200 million a day, for a 2,000-person entourage. The White House calls the cost figure wildly inflated.

The manufactured controversy about cost is taking attention away from what should be the main story: who is accompanying the President on the trip and what do they hope to get out of it. A big part of Obama’s entourage will be scores of top U.S. corporate executives, who are seeking Obama’s help in initiating or finalizing big deals with the Indian government and Indian corporations. Numerous other U.S. companies are not sending executives on Obama’s trip but are still hoping the visit will advance their interests in India.

Among the deals that have been reported are: the sale of ten military transport planes worth some $5 billion by Boeing and the sale of $800 million in fighter jet engines to the Indian military and $500 million in heavy duty gas turbines to India’s Reliance Energy, both by General Electric. Other dealmakers are said to include Eaton Corp., John Deere, Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson.

In other words, a President endlessly denounced by the Right as a socialist, is serving as a shill for some of the country’s largest corporations. This is far from the first time an American president has acted as salesman-in-chief for American products, and the White House makes no apologies for the trip, claiming that it will result in the creation of thousands of jobs.

The problem is that it is far from clear that landing big deals for U.S.-based corporations will result in many jobs for U.S. workers. The list of companies with executives going to India with President Obama (or that stand to benefit from the trip) include some of the most notorious practitioners of offshore outsourcing.

Take the two heaviest hitters on the trip. Boeing has made a science of shifting work from its traditional manufacturing operations around Seattle to factories around the world. It has clashed repeatedly with its unionized workers over the issue. And when it’s not sending jobs abroad, it moves them to domestic non-union plants, such as its big new operation in South Carolina.

General Electric is another unabashed offshorer. In the early 1990s about one-quarter of the company’s employees were outside the United States; at the end of last year, 56 percent of them were. What’s especially frustrating is that GE is offshoring jobs in emerging fields such as renewable energy, thus depriving many American workers of a shot at the jobs of the future.

Eaton, a diversified manufacturer of industrial products, now has 27 facilities in China with some 10,000 workers as well as four research and development centers in the country. In April, John Deere opened a manufacturing plant and parts distribution center in Russia. It already had factories in low-wage countries such as Brazil, China, Ecuador, India and Mexico. Caterpillar has eight plants in China, eight in Mexico, three in India and many more in other countries. It recently opened a logistics center in China to support what a company press release called its “growing manufacturing footprint” in that country.

Harley-Davidson is an icon of U.S. manufacturing, but it just announced plans to open a new plant in India to assemble U.S.-made motorcycle kits. It is unclear whether this will increase or decrease jobs at the company’s American plants, which have been exporting fully assembled motorcycles to the Indian market.

It’s true that these companies have to do a certain amount of production in countries such as China and India to sell to local customers, yet it is also undeniable that these firms and others seeking benefits from Obama’s trip have been reducing manufacturing operations in the United States that previously supplied goods for both domestic and foreign markets.

There is no guarantee that the jobs Obama hopes to generate with his sales trip to India will end up going to Americans. The companies whose wares he is promoting are in many cases American only in terms of where their headquarters are located. They are all too willing to destroy the livelihood of U.S. workers in their global pursuit of cheaper labor and fatter profits.

That kind of behavior costs this country much more than what the President’s delegation could ever spend on its trip to India.