Archive for April, 2008

Will the WARN Act Become More than a Headache for Job-Cutting Employers?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

The buyout industry—or private equity, as it prefers to be called—likes to give the impression that it creates new jobs rather than destroying them in the companies it takes over. Yet plant closings do occur among private equity portfolio firms, and in some cases the owners aren’t even willing to observe basic federal law governing shutdowns. The other day, the Dow Jones LBO Wire ran a story noting that several buyout firms have been sued for allegedly violating the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act for short.

One of the defendants is Code Hennessy & Simmons LLC, which is charged with failing to provide the required 60 days’ warning when its portfolio company Hoboken Wood Flooring abruptly shut its doors last fall. Another case involves Reliant Equity Investors, which is said to have violated WARN when layoffs occurred recently at its company BlueSky Brands.

The Dow Jones story referred to WARN as “an obscure and somewhat toothless labor law” that was “causing headaches for buyout firms.” To reinforce the latter idea, the web version of the article was illustrated with two aspirin containers.

It is true that WARN currently leaves something to be desired in terms of effectiveness. This was made abundantly clear in a four-part series by James Drew and Steve Eder that ran in the Toledo Blade last summer. They found that the 1988 legislation “is so full of loopholes and flaws that employers repeatedly skirt it with little or no penalty.” Part of the problem is that Congress did not provide for enforcement of the act, so workers must bring their own court actions that often result in meager settlements.

While buyout firms (and other employers) would probably prefer to see the law repealed, some pro-labor members of Congress are pushing to strengthen the act. At the same time, states such as New Jersey are moving to enact their own WARN Acts that go beyond the current federal statute. (For details on both federal and state initiatives, see the website of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which has worked on WARN issues since its founding in 1991.)

Layoff notification requirements by themselves are no solution for job dislocation, but given the way the economy is going, workers need all the help they can get.

Some other WARN resources:
Toledo Blade Interactive map with info on WARN lawsuits Congressional Research Service report (September 26, 2007)
GAO report (September 2003)
Directory of State Rapid Response Coordinators

Hillary Clinton is Ahead in the Wal-Mart Election

Friday, April 4th, 2008

It hasn’t been a great week for Wal-Mart, what with having to back down from its demand that the family of brain-damaged former employee Debbie Shank reimburse the company’s health plan for her medical treatment.

Yet in an interview with the Financial Times published Thursday, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott indicated that in a wider sense the company is doing well:

Mr Scott expressed satisfaction that in spite of the union campaign, Wal-Mart’s record had not become an issue in the Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton served on Wal-Mart’s board from 1986 to 1992 when her husband was governor of Arkansas, the retailer’s home state.

It’s easy to forget it was once thought that this presidential race would focus on the impact of Wal-Mart on the economy and the labor market. In January 2007 a columnist for U.S. News wrote: “The ginormous retailer is sure to be a frequent target for Democrats during the 2008 presidential election.” Barack Obama made an issue of Clinton’s tenure on the Wal-Mart board during a debate in January but has not had much to say about the company since John Edwards left the race. Clinton, far from attacking Wal-Mart, has had to contend with investigations, such as one done by ABC News in late January, showing that during her time as a director she remained silent about the company’s assaults on union organizing drives. Clinton responded by saying her views had changed and that she is now a strong supporter of unions.

Despite this professed change of heart about the Wal-Mart philosophy of labor relations, it appears that Clinton is the favorite presidential candidate among those working at the company. A search of individual campaign contribution data on the Open Secrets website shows that Wal-Mart executives and other employees have contributed far more to Clinton— $22,000—during the current election cycle than to John McCain or Obama, each of whom has received $3,700. (Note that only those contributing $200 or more have to list an employer. The totals were derived by searching both “Wal-Mart” and “Walmart” in the employer field.)

The Wal-Mart contributions are a minuscule portion of the more than $160 million Clinton has raised, but it is notable that among those giving their individual maximums to the New York Senator are two of Wal-Mart’s executive vice presidents—Thomas Hyde and PR guru Leslie Dach. Either they know something we don’t about Clinton’s current views, or this, like the company’s previous hard line in the Debbie Shank case, is an example of how Wal-Mart executives are often thick-headed about what is really in the company’s best interests.

EMMA: Municipal Bond Documents Finally Being Made Accessible

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

For more than a decade, key corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission have been available to the public at no charge through the EDGAR website. This has been a boon for transparency and a godsend for researchers.

During the same period, those who wanted to access analogous documents on tax-exempt bonds filed with the lesser known Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) have had to use commercial services such as Munistatements and DPC Data that charge hefty subscription or pay-per-view fees.

Now that is beginning to change. This week MSRB introduced EMMA (short for Electronic Municipal Market Access), which is described as “an Internet-based disclosure portal.” The key document EMMA will disclose is the Official Statement (OS), a prospectus that issuing agencies publish with details on new municipal securities.

The OS is useful not only to municipal finance specialists and investors in tax-exempt bonds. Because certain types of municipal securities such as industrial revenue bonds provide funding for private-sector projects, many OS filings shine a light on ways in which public money is being used to subsidize for-profit ventures.

EMMA starts out this week on a pilot basis covering only advance refundings of outstanding securities. The site also provides real-time trade price data — an effort to end market insiders’ monopoly on price information. Fuller access to OS filings will begin after June 30, but it remains to be seen whether EMMA will have the full search capabilities of Munistatements and DPC.

Would Paulson’s CBRA Have Fangs?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Although anything coming from the Bush Administration has to be regarded with suspicion, one aspect of the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s plan to revamp the regulation of financial institutions is intriguing. As part of the replacement of the current alphabet soup of agencies with a new minestrone, Paulson called for the creation of a single entity to oversee consumer protection issues relating to all regulated financial institutions. Although the Paulson blueprint often refers to this as the “business conduct regulator,” the formal proposed name is the Conduct of Business Regulatory Agency, or CBRA for short.

The new agency would combine selected functions now handled (or neglected) by entities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the various bank regulators. Other SEC functions—presumably including oversight of the securities of non-financial companies—would apparently reside in a new agency formed by the merger of the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

CBRA’s proposed mission is described (p.19) as follows:

Business conduct regulation in this context includes key aspects of consumer protection such as disclosures, business practices, and chartering and licensing of certain types of financial firms. One agency responsible for all financial products should bring greater consistency to areas of business conduct regulation where overlapping requirements currently exist. The business conduct regulator’s chartering and licensing function should be different than the prudential regulator’s financial oversight responsibilities. More specifically, the focus of the business conduct regulator should be on providing appropriate standards for firms to be able to enter the financial services industry and sell their products and services to customers… CBRA’s main areas of authority would include disclosure issues related to policy forms, unfair trade practices, and claims handling procedures.

It’s difficult to know how seriously to take this. Is Paulson suggesting that CBRA would be able to establish strict consumer protection standards before a company is allowed to set up shop anywhere in the financial services marketplace? If so, then bring it on.

Also appealing (from a researcher’s perspective) is the emphasis on disclosure, especially relating to information apart from data that Paulson puts under the purview of the “corporate finance regulator.” Today, the disclosure needs of investors are too often put ahead of the disclosure needs of consumers, workers and the general public.

Paulson’s blueprint may go nowhere, but if it does, let’s hope that his CBRA would really have fangs.