Monday, November 17, 2008

Goldman Sachs Spins Gold from Top Brass Woes

Goldman Sachs, which has lost nearly 70% of its value this year and recently fired 3,200 employees, may be showing signs of late developing wisdom. Sunday they announced that the firm’s top seven executives had requested that they not be awarded any bonus for their work in 2008. Silk purse and sow’s ear come to mind, but kudos to the firm and its top executives for making a virtue of necessity and getting out in front of an issue that AIG got so horribly wrong. Given the grilling that US Treasury officials received last week over AIG executive bonuses during Congressional hearings about the $ 700 billion bail-out that it had authorized, there was no question that major investment firms and banks were going to have to seriously scale back or completely forgo annual bonuses. But GS, by getting out there early, and making it appear to be an act of voluntary contrition, have spun gold from thin air.

Fear not for Goldman Sachs top execs, nor for their families’ Christmas plans. While they will not rake in the average $50 – 100 million bonuses that the seven received at the end of 2007, they will probably be able to eke by with their $600,000 base pay salaries. Unfortunately for those who really did get out in front of the issue like Morgan Stanley chief, John Mack, who took no bonus in 2007 after a 4th quarter loss but has steered the company through a profitable, if dismal, 2008, there will be intense pressure to also say “no thanks” to an end-year bonus. But having taken money from the Government as part of the bail-out program, Morgan Stanley now finds strings attached to its limbs and the tune being called by the likes Representative Henry Waxman (D- CA), that paragon of self-righteous, grasping, interventionist, big-governmentalism.

But back to Goldman’s text-book stuntsmanship. The fact is that given the firm’s dismal performance and its acknowledged (however squirmishly) role in the financial crisis, there was no way that mega million bonuses were going to be passed out to top executives anyway. By “voluntarily” forgoing said bonuses early and loudly, they have not only, enhanced the GS image but they have relieved the pressure that Waxman and others of his ilk might exert over how the next tier of employees are paid, and retained. Issuing the news on Sunday delivered them top line heralding on traditionally slow news Monday and substantially increased the organic media bang of their announcement, delivering a lot of positive spin. Other banks and investment firms are going to have to make similar decisions. They can’t go first since Goldman Sachs has already stolen their thunder, but they can still gain kudos or mitigate further damage to their image and investor confidence with a very loud mea culpa. America loves when the mighty have fallen, but they love contrition and public confession almost as much. By acknowledging their roles in the financial crisis and showing their pain by giving up the mega million bonuses that they aren’t going to get anyway, the nation’s hedge fund managers and investment bankers can somewhat redeem themselves in the public eye.

The Bloated Plutocrat is indignant. “Giving up their bonuses! It’s a wonder they haven’t been pulled from their offices and lynched in the night by angry homeowners (or former homeowners) wielding pitchforks and torches. The problem with all these jumped-up bank clerks is that they expect millions just for showing up. At best they make conventional decisions during market up-turns and do limited damage during cyclical down-turns. At worst, they imagine that their ability to move markets is a good thing. They’re lucky to have their heads, let alone their base pay”.

The Bleeding Heart however felt that it was a sign of change in America’s financial institutions. “Change has come. Change has come in Congress and to the White House. And it looks like the unregulated robber barons on Wall Street can read the writing on the wall, finally. Fed on a banquet of tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and habituated to the blind eye of regulators over the last eight years, I am surprised at their ability to see the shift in the wind and get with the program. Other financial institutions and recipients of bail-out funds had better follow Goldman Sachs lead or they will find themselves at the receiving end of a Congressional inquiry”.

Regardless of the motivation, Goldman Sachs announcement yesterday was well done, well timed, and has been well received.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Detroit Metal or Washington Muddle?

To bail or not to bail, that is the question.

No, not an effort to address surfer-speak, but a question about the auto industry’s pleas for government aid (or subsidies to the more plain-spoken). Will President Bush push money at ailing auto makers in his waning days? Will President Elect Obama act early in his administration to put a shot in Detroit’s arm? Speculation seems to favor the latter. So what are America’s car and truck manufacturers saying about their woes and asking for in terms of help?

Essentially, they are saying that within the next year some of them may be in bankruptcy or worse. With sagging sales, locked out of tight credit markets due to said sales, millions of jobs on the line, and a seeming inability to rapidly adjust to volatile fuel prices and their impact on consumer purchasing behavior, America’s Big Three are running out of money. And according to an industry trade association, there are approximately 3 million jobs at risk. It doesn’t take a very clever flak to begin assigning these 3 million jobs to specific states and Congressional districts as they mount the pressure for an auto industry bailout likely to carry a $25 – $50 billion price tag (MSRP, dealer fees may apply). And it’s not just at home that they are seeking help. Ford and GM have both asked Chancellor Merkel in Germany for assistance in order to avoid job losses there. This rather pointed game of “give us money or we’ll fire thousands of people” is apparently international. And Chrysler, only recently spurned by Mercedes Benz, is shamelessly flirting with all comers, including the likes of Hyundai. Their stories are backed up by balance sheets showing that even when hard decisions are made and matched by hard work, a narrowing of losses is the best they can currently hope for. And Kerk Kerkorian feels their pain. The billionaire investor and casino mogul has lost almost $700 million on the just over 6% stake in Ford that he took back in June.

Their goal: money and legislative/regulatory changes that will encourage new car purchases and improve their competitive position versus foreign automakers. Specifically, Big Three executives, along with United Auto Worker union leadership, have asked for at least $25 billion in “loans to bridge the current financial crisis” along with an additional $25 billion for “health care coverage and other retirement costs” for retired workers. In addition, measures such as allowing taxpayers to deduct interest on car payments from the taxable income and providing a financial incentive to consumers to scrap older vehicles have been floated. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have said that they are committed to some kind of bail out for the car manufacturers. The Bush administration has also made favorable noises but claims Congress’ authorization for the current $700 billion bailout package does not allow them to divert aid to the auto makers. Meanwhile, Democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is claiming that 10% of all US jobs are dependent on the auto industry and thus, at risk. President Elect Obama seems to be in favor of some kind of aid and assistance, but would probably prefer that President Bush carry the water on this one. And, Treasury Secretary Paulson insists that any measures aimed at aiding the auto industry must improve car companies’ “viability”, while many House and Senate Republicans, reeling from the $700 financial bailout package, are likely to make moves by Democrats and a lame duck administration difficult.

Pundits accuse GM at least of “playing chicken with the government” in its bid to portray bankruptcy as “not an option” vs a government bailout. Yet despite the transparent nature of their doom and gloom messaging, there are few serious voices being raised against some sort of aid. The kicker is obviously the jobs argument. That is clearly working with Governor Granholm whose claim of 10% of all US jobs dependent on the auto industry is farfetched, but delivered with gusto. As a former purveyor of economic impact studies aimed at influencing public policy, my guess is that the 3 million jobs cited by the Center for Automotive Research study is inflated to the absolute extent that industry lawyers will stomach. But even if the real number is 2 million, or 1.5 million, can the country afford to lose those jobs? What about the knock-on effect of those lost jobs? This is Detroit’s most potent argument and it has traction inside the beltway.
Our learned commentators, freed from recent political commitments, are back with us to analyze this issue. The Bleeding Heart, recently returned from Chicago (and no doubt pursuing a patronage job in the Obama administration) was quick to back Congressional Democrats. “Eight years of failed Republican policies have driven us to these dire economic straits and the American people have responded, giving President Elect Obama and the Democratic Party a mandate to use the powers of government to resuscitate our economy, regulate industry, and repair our nation. That means a bailout for automakers whose jobs are critical throughout the Midwest”, he said, sounding remarkably Press Secretary-like.

The Bloated Plutocrat, called away from secretive GOP rebuilding sessions, was less certain. “And then what? Given the commitments that the Big Three have, through UAW, to retired workers, the line between company and care provider is blurred. Will an injection of billions of taxpayer dollars into ‘companies’ that can’t seem to shed the fat needed to compete effectively really solve their problems? They are encumbered with legacy issues that make them more social institution than employer. Maybe the time has come when cars just can’t be made profitably in this country?” The Bloated Plutocrat is not amused.

Car-makers are making potent arguments by focusing on potential job losses that would further set back the economy and add to the challenges facing a new Executive and Congress. If they can remain effective, it seems very like that more of your money will be headed via the Treasury to Detroit’s coffers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where's Mine?

Your Genteel Moderator feels that he should reward his loyal readers. Consequently, below you will find a document that should help all of you to claim a share of the proposed $700 billion “bail-out” plan proposed by the President last Friday and currently under debate in Congress. The Bloated Plutocrat and the Bleeding Heart are unfortunately unable to comment this week as they are busy working on their own plans…

Strategic Plan for MyCo Inclusion in Government Bail-Out of Financial Industry

On Friday, September 19, 2008, the President and Treasury Secretary Paulson announced that they would seek Congressional approval for a $700 billion + bail-out of troubled US financial institutions suffering from the home mortgage crisis and related financial woes. It is as yet unclear what criteria will be used to define “troubled financial institutions” eligible for bail-out.

Ensure that MyCo benefits from the bail-out and receives substantial sums of cash from the federal government. The specific monetary objective is four times 2007 earnings.

1. Develop evidentiary support for claim that MyCo has been damaged by the credit crisis and is at risk of bankruptcy;
a. Exchange outstanding bad debt for defaulted mortgages to ensure consideration as bail-out candidate;
b. Hire large number of employees (target: 25,000) and back-date employment to 2007 to ensure their employment status factors into evaluation criteria;
c. Do not pay employees and claim this is because of credit crisis and not the company’s fault.
d. Indentify and fire middle management scapegoat for “mismanagement” of funds;
e. Use employee pension fund to buy stock in financial institutions likely to be bailed-out showing MyCo is clearly inter-linked to troubled financial institutions;

2. Seek opportunities on high profile media (ie CNN, CNBC, MSNBC etc.) for MyCo senior management to explain company’s plight and the importance of federal bail-out ;

3. Activate Harvard and Dartmouth Alumni Association contacts to lobby Paulson on MyCo’s behalf;

4. Provide form letters/e-mails to MyCo employees to contact relevant Congressional Representatives and Senators urging action on their behalf;

Issues for Consideration:
Although MyCo has no current exposure to defaulted mortgages or any of the major financial institutions filing for, or at risk of, bankruptcy, the actions listed under Step 1 above should ensure that MyCo is able to show need by the time any legislation is approved by Congress;

MyCo’s track-record of consistent profit over its lifespan was originally considered a possible hurdle to consideration for bail-out, but review of companies already named as likely bail-out candidates suggest that this is immaterial;

Senior management bonuses may be negatively affected by such a bail-out and the potential for increased government oversight in the future, therefore back-dating mid-year bonuses at a higher than average rate should be considered;

In relation to above, it is possible that MyCo senior executives may at some future date be required to explain what it is they do to merit such large salaries and bonuses. At this time, we have been unable to elicit any comprehensible responses from MyCo senior management.

Annex: Additional Background Information on Bail-Out Plan

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Russia’s Georgian Adventure: Whither an Economic Cold War?

I remember the arcane science of ‘Kremlinology’; sifting through the tea leaves in an attempt to understand the USSR’s objectives and motivations. An East – West studies major at the end of the Cold War at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, we were still very much focused on such matters. Within a year of graduating, the paradigm had begun to drastically change with the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Within four years, Your Genteel Moderator was writing speeches for pro-market economy politicians in formerly Communist controlled countries and working to acquire privatized companies in Poland, Hungary, [then] Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, and Russia. The latter was open for business and despite the enormous difficulties of doing business there, from legislative uncertainty to serious issues with currency, foreign direct investment was flooding in at the multi-billion dollar level. One theory, much touted by the Clinton Administration and one of my former professors of “Kremlinology”, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was that such investment would so entwine Russia in the global economy as to ensure its commitment to the principles of free-market democracy. I must say, I was dubious after spending time in Russia (including a forced stay in Moscow during the aborted Coup d’Etat in the summer of 1991) and dealing with the Russian government.

Fast forward through the chaos of the Yeltsin years when “bizness” generally meant the expropriation of any state assets one could lay hands on and the swelling of numerous Swiss bank accounts. Pass more slowly through the pendulum reaction of the Putin Presidency when the supremacy of the State, and the Head of State, were reestablished creating an “etatist” economy that closely entwined government, political cronies, and economic strategy, fueled (literally) by ever increasing oil and gas revenues. Arrive at the farce of “President” Dimitry Medvedev’s election and subsequent appointment of Vlaidmir Putin as “Prime Minister” with a substantially increased portfolio of overt powers to bolster his continued de facto control of the State. Russia is a powerful, re-armed, aggressive regional power with substantial wealth, and major leverage (in the form of natural gas sales) over Germany and other Western European nations. Rightly or wrongly perceiving NATO expansion into Central Europe and potentially further east (Georgia’s abortive candidacy was ill-advised to say the least), Russia is using US preoccupation with Iraq (and irony of ironies) Afghanistan to reassert its political and military hegemony over the former USSR states. It certainly doesn’t appear that investment by US and Western European companies has entangled Russia in the global economy to the extent necessary to force more responsible and less hostile activity. The question one has to ask is whether substantial investment in Russia and its littoral states has in fact diminished the US and Western European appetite for confronting such aggression and reverting to a traditional policy of containment?

Despite protestations from both Russia and the West that we are not seeing a return to the Cold War, it is very hard to view this in any other light. Reemerging from a period of military and political weakness Russia perceives the West (and particularly the US) pursuing a policy of encirclement. Its old nemesis NATO is on its western and southern borders with a vastly diminished ring of “buffer states”, the US military is conducting extensive operations along its soft southern underbelly, and a US anti-ballistic missile system threatens to neutralize its strategic nuclear threat. The West is no better. Viewing the inevitable return of authoritarian government in Russia (who could imagine anything else?) as necessarily a threat to security and stability in Europe and Central Asia (granted, with good reason), it has put the boot in with abandon wherever it could from the Ukraine, to former client states like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, and finally to its courtship of Georgia, all the while decrying the conduct of the Russian government domestically. For Russia, expansion and the creation of buffer states has been an historic imperative from a security standpoint. For the West, containing that expansion and mitigating Russia’s (in whatever guise) influence and power farther afield has been a basic policy since the mid 19th century. Re-emergent Russia means resuscitation of containment in one form or another.

There is however a major twist in this emerging Cold War: a global economy. In the old Cold War, the economic doctrines of Marxist/Leninist Communism in Russia meant that the USSR and its Warsaw Pact satellites were not integrated into an economy that had become increasingly global in scope in the forty some years after the close of WWII. While East – West Trade existed, it was almost always subservient to the political strategies and interests of either party. After 1990, the growth of trade, the substantial inflow of foreign direct investment to Russia, and the substantial capital flight from Russia to investment opportunities around the world contributed the rapid acceleration of Russia’s involvement and participation in the global marketplace. Rising fuel costs in the middle of this decade (driven in part by Russia’s partial success in developing its own economy and, to some extent, by the large expansion in disposable income for a segment of Russian society) have given the country economic muscle and the wherewithal to rebuild its military. Not only has Russia’s emergence as a player in the global economy been one of the forces driving current pressures on commodity and fuel prices, but its control over substantial volumes of commodities as well as its own oil and gas reserves have provided it with leverage over the likes of Germany that even batteries of medium range nuclear missiles couldn’t deliver in the 1980s.

What does this mean for “Western” companies with investments, affiliates, joint ventures, etc., in a Russia that appears set on a course for confrontation with the West? Risk. And risk management. The first thing that any high profile companies with transparent investments in Russia and listings on Wall Street needs to do is take stock of its political entanglements in Russia. Despite the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the best of intentions in adhering to it, nobody has been doing large-scale business successfully I Russia without some sort of political entanglement. If confrontation escalates or, perhaps, as conflict escalates between the West and Russia, those entanglements – silent partners, minority JV partners, counselors, “friends”, whatever one is calling them these days – will be the cause of pressure. Whether that pressure is from the West over revelations of such entanglements or through them from the Russian government, now is the time to be cutting them loose or distancing the company from that exposure. As time goes by, this will get harder and the cost of doing so will be higher.
Next, take the “New York Times test”. What will the nature of any transactions, investments, or entanglements look like printed on the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal when the next act of Russian aggression or Western provocation results in something more serious than the annexation of unpronounceable territories at the back end of nowhere? Develop scenarios. Will there be a share-price impact? Will such revelations negatively impact business development efforts elsewhere? Finally, develop contingencies and exit strategies starting now – quietly. Better to run the risk of unnecessary planning now than face the Board’s question as to why you weren’t prepared for this later.

The Bleeding Heart does not share Your Genteel Moderator’s gloomy forecast. Over the phone from Denver, sounding like a teenager on ecstasy at a rave, he assured me that all would be well come November. “When Obama is elected, this gloom and doom atmosphere is going to rapidly change. There will be a new optimism in this country and a new respect for America abroad. He’s going to be able to work with the Russians and others because he believes that talking and negotiating are the way to get things done, not unilateralism and provocation. Investment in Russia has been a good thing and has helped to tame Putin’s more aggressive tendencies.” The Bloated Plutocrat was somewhat less optimistic. “The only thing worse than Godless Communism is Russian Capitalism. My family lost a lot when Russia went Red in 1917 and while I have made a good deal of money through investments and transactions in Russia over the last 15 years, I am divesting rapidly. Whether this President or the next does something stupid to set them off is irrelevant. The rules have never been fair and the market has never been free in Russia, but with the return of increasing political and security tension on the geo-political level as well as the significant economic risks, the costs of doing business there are simply going to be too great in the not so distant future”.

To be sure, in any time of political uncertainty there is money to be made. That will be true in Russia for the foreseeable future. What many need concern themselves with is that there is also a great deal to be lost, and it will be the re-emergence of the dialectic between Russia’s urge to expand and the West’s perceived need to contain, with a new global economic twist, that will govern the risk/return ratio in Russia and Central Asia for some time to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cheaper Invasions?

You are of course well aware of those “evil foreign dictators”, whose “monopoly” control over our oil imports threatens our national security. You must be aware of them, every member of Congress, the Presidential candidates, their operatives, the pundits, and the media meat puppets are constantly talking about them. Sen Chuck Schumer (NY) was going to sue them if his co-sponsored Consumer-First Energy Act was passed back in June. It certainly is an issue of concern: these undemocratic, foreign potentates in distant lands whose nefarious plans to exploit US energy needs threaten the future of the nation. You know: “them”.

“They” are also a threat to our national security not only because of their “near monopoly powers”, but because of their support for terrorist organizations and the unremitting oppression of their own people, which encourages further resentment and terrorist action against the US. Indeed, their profiteering and price gouging is a major cause of the current economic recession and constitutes a virtual act of war by other means against the country. In fact, as Paul Wolfowitz (subsequently US Deputy Secretary of Defense and a leading “Neo-Con”) noted in 1994, “The United States and the entire industrialized world have an enormous stake in the security of the Persian Gulf, not primarily in order to save a few dollars per gallon of gasoline but rather because a hostile regime in control of those resources could wreak untold damage on the world's economy, and could apply that wealth to purposes that would endanger peace globally.” As of May of this year, the United States had imported 398,714,000 barrels of oil. Indeed, with daily US oil production at just over 5 million barrels/day and it’s oil needs at just over 19 million barrels/day, imports will remain critical for the economy.

The situation is very clear. Foreign control of oil necessary for the economic well-being of the United States represents a clear and present danger to the national security of the country. The only possible response should be the invasion of those countries that pose such a grave threat to the US and the confiscation of their oil resources. But wait, Iraq is only contributing about 600,000 barrels/day of the nearly 14 million barrels/day in imports required by the US – at market prices. There has to be a better solution. From where does the US get most of its foreign oil? Well the top three despotic, monopoly suppliers of oil are: Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Saudi Arabia has many of the same problems as Iraq. It’s far away, hot and dusty, and full of people that despise America and aren't opposed to a dynamite vest for the cause. Next on the list is Venezuela at roughly 1 million barrels/day of oil exports to the US. So, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela combined make up about 3 million barrels/day of US energy needs. Hmmmm….

“Canada's trade surplus widened for a second straight month in June as exports of energy products such as crude petroleum and natural gas surged and car shipments rebounded.

The surplus widened to C$5.76 billion ($5.41 billion) from a revised C$5.22 billion in May, Statistics Canada said today in Ottawa. Exports and imports both rose to records in June, gaining 3.1 percent and 2 percent respectively, and the trade surplus with the U.S. was the widest since January 2006.”

Hold on. Canada has been a steadfast ally of the US ever since the last time the US tried to invade them in 1812. They are the US’ leading trading partner and a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And while they do tend to be a little goody-goody and socialist, ruthless oppressors and supporters of terrorism, they are not. There’s always Mexico. Almost every night, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, that paragon of intellect, is on television urging that the US go to war with Mexico, right after the hundreds of millions of illegal Mexican immigrants (most of whom are saboteurs infiltrated by the Mexican government) are gathered up in concentration camps. Mexico is currently good for almost 1.5 million barrels/day and, under occupation, they could certainly be counted on for up to 5 million barrels/day without truly undue suffering by the civilian population. And there is a history of invasion and successful annexation of Mexican lands between the US. The problem is that not only is Mexico a member of NAFTA and, Lou Dobbs aside, a friend and ally, they are rather fond of their independence. And, as General Pershing noted following his 1915 invasion of Mexico, the Mexicans are rather good insurgency fighters.

Ah, Venezuela. In 2007 it averaged 2.4 million barrels/day production and should be relatively easy to bump up above the 3 million barrels/day mark. Lead by the loveable Hugo Chavez, the Neo-Communist and attempted dictator-for-life who aspires to Fidel Castro’s mantel, here is a country whose leadership does indeed oppress its people, that certainly supports organizations with a professed antipathy to the United States, and whose arms dealing with Iran might be stretched to support for terrorism. Certainly, with a little creative writing by the intelligence community, Chavez could be shown to be in search of WMD. Chavez’ relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself involved in nuclear arms proliferation, would certainly lend credence to any such claims, while the fact of his conventional arms build-up, his aggression toward US ally Colombia, and his support for allegedly socialist but clearly anti-US political movements across Latin America and the Caribbean, all help make the case.

So, Venezuela it is! Or….perhaps there are some things that might be considered before such an invasion to alleviate the energy crisis and improve the US economy. Maybe some improved deficit management to strengthen the dollar? Maybe some diminished government expenditures? Maybe steps towards a realistic alternative energy policy based on rewards for sustainable energy alternatives to oil imports (as opposed to incentives to pursue energy objectives and strategies set by Congress). Food for thought?

The Bleeding Heart thinks so. “Hugo Chavez is the replacement for an ailing, and possibly already dead, Fidel Castro in the iconography of Neo-Con ‘boogey-men’ created by this administration. The real issue is not how to get cheap oil by invading yet another country, but how to reduce dependence on imported oil, whether imported from friend and ally or foreign despot. The market simply doesn’t work and Congress needs to be allowed to deveolop an effective energy policy that incentivizes sustainable types of energy production.”
The Bloated Plutocrat is less certain. “Congress is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the incompetent. Their idea of energy policy is to spin the ‘wheel of populist nonsense’ and see where the dart lands – that’s the new energy policy this week. The market does and will work. If Congress wants to break with tradition and do something useful, providing tax credits and other rewards for initiatives that provide measurable, sustainable offsets against oil imports may be helpful. Mostly, they can stop talking nonsense about the price of gasoline being the result of oil company speculation.”

Let us hope that further military adventure is not seen by this or coming administrations as a viable mechanism for alleviation of the so-called energy crisis. Perhaps the market can find solutions. This, for example, may not be the answer, but at least someone is thinking:


NOTE: Your Genteel Moderator apologizes for the dearth of postings in recent weeks but work, travel, and holiday schedules have made coordination with the Bleeding Heart and Bloated Plutocrat impossible. Now, your Genteel Moderator himself heads to Portugal’s beautiful Algarve for several weeks and will not be available to write. Please enjoy the last of our summer weeks and look forward to new and more consistent posting in September.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

InBev, in Bid for Bud, Courts Community

It really ought to be called “uncommon sense”. While it may seem that InBev are doing what any company pursuing an unsolicited takeover bid should do by prosecuting a charm offensive with stockholders, the community, and government, you may be surprised how few companies get it right. The sale of the largest US brewer and its iconic Budweiser brand to Brazilian controlled, Brussels based InBev is not sitting well with US lawmakers or many in St. Louis. However, the proposed $65/share offer, that could result in a $57 billion total takeover bid with assumption of debt, should be sitting well with shareholders who have seen little positive share movement in recent years as Bud’s share and historic pricing control over the US market have been eroded by the massive expansion of small micro-breweries, rising imports, and the search by many beer drinkers of the elusive “anti-Bud”.

It would of course be crazy for law makers and community leaders to comment favorably on the proposed transaction. Nobody likes change and a change that sees the country’s leading brewery, and its leading brand, Budweiser, sold to the Brazilians, is not going to be popular. InBev gets this. This is not the first time the company has faced local hostility during its massive expansion and they have learned much over the years. In addition to a charm blitz aimed at wooing the St. Louis media, community opinion leaders, and Missouri’s Congressional delegation, InBev has set up a website to promote the acquisition by providing reassuring facts and grist for the media mill. This is a very smart move and, again, while it will strike most people as common sense, it is not something done with the regularity necessary to make it “common”.
If anyone hadn’t previously noticed the global shift in economic power that is taking place and gaining momentum during the first decade of the 21st Century, this should do it for you. Anheuser-Busch is not a company in trouble. It is not a company without global reach. It is however a tasty target in the on-going consolidation of global brewing that has seen US number two, Miller, become part of South African Breweries to make the world’s current largest brewer, and the nation’s third largest brewer, Coors, merge with Molson of Canada in 2004 to become the world’s fifth largest beer company. Indeed, that consolidation, and the subsequent merger of SABMiller and Molson Coors operations in the US and Puerto Rico just over six months ago, helped make the InBev takeover bid possible by putting further competitive pressure on Anheuser-Busch.
So, when the 'Show-Me State' gets all worked up about Anheuser-Busch being sold to foreigners, they may care to note that there aren’t really any US owned mega-brewers left but Anheuser-Busch. And even if the company somehow survives the InBev takeover bid, its Missouri roots will likely be diluted by the merger of Anheuser-Busch with Grupo Modelo of Mexico (maker of Corona), in which Anheuser –Busch already has a 50% stake. While this strategy is being discussed a means to make a hostile takeover by InBev unpalatable, there is substantial speculation that InBev may like to swallow the Corona maker in the deal anyway. While InBev chief Carlos Brito seems opposed to further upping the deal, it seems unlikely that he would really balk at the opportunity.
The bottom line is that InBev is doing all the right things and making all the right noises. While politicians can volubly declare their opposition to the deal, the fact is that there’s really not much they can do about it as there are no substantial regulatory hurdles to such an acquisition. If Anheuser-Busch shareholders like the offer, that should pretty much be that. The Busch family controls less than 5% of the stock while Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns over 5% of shares and stands to make some USD $600 million on a three year investment in the company. The largest single shareholder, Barclay's PLC, with over 6% interest in the company, is unlikely to oppose a tidy profit.
“That Buffett is a clever chap. I haven’t been in beer shares for some time. With the economy on the way down, your booze portfolio should be in hard liquor. Beer may be relatively more affordable, but ‘liquor is quicker’ as they say. I can’t see Anheuser-Busch staving this bid off. A Grupo Modelo merger may put InBev off temporarily if they only have Board approval for a purchase in the $50 billion range, but Anheuser-Busch has not grown as aggressively as it should have internationally and this is the price it pays”, said the Bloated Plutocrat. The Bleeding Heart is still so angry with your Genteel Moderator over last week’s Big Oil vs Big Government post that he would not file written remarks. When I did speak with him over the phone, he insisted that “this is all because of NAFTA”. When I explained that the proposed InBev deal had nothing to do with NAFTA, he became very distraught and screamed that I didn’t understand international trade and that this was all just another unwanted side-effect of a free-trade policy. This is of course partly true. But if Anheuser-Busch were buying Tsing-Tao, I somehow doubt the Bleeding Heart would be railing against free trade…

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Big Oil vs. Big Government

Nobody likes oil companies, except the Bloated Plutocrat of course. They are environmentally unfriendly. And they make way too much profit. Well, right now at least. The last “oil crisis” that I witnessed was rather different. In 1998 I was living in Dubai and the price of a barrel of oil dipped below $20. Persian Gulf governments were in a tizzy over the massive revenue shortfalls and falling budgets they were facing. There was talk of suing EU governments for the disproportionately high taxes that they imposed on the retail selling price of gasoline! North Sea rigs were set to shut because they couldn't produce at that price. Oil companies were losing money then. But ever since then they have made OBSCENE profits according to Barack Obama and his Senate Demagogues, sorry, Democratic colleagues, that introduced a piece of political hustle called The Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008, largely comprised of a 25% windfall profits tax on U.S. oil companies. While I agree that Exxon-Mobil’s first quarter earnings of $10.9 are pretty much obscene, it seems that over the past ten years, Exxon-Mobil and other US oil companies have reaped profits on par with the rest of US manufacturing companies – approximately 8 cents on the dollar invested. Oh. Fortunately the Bill is going nowhere.

Oil prices are high because the US won the Cold War and discredited Godless Communism, the economic aspects of which have been chucked out the window everywhere but North Korea and the London School of Economics, even if China and others maintain the political aspects of Marxism-Leninism that keep the ruling oligarchy in power. Meanwhile with even “socialism” a dirty word outside the retrograde South American countries that Venezuelan President Chavez has purchased with oil revenues, China and the formerly bumbling socialist India, Russia, and most of its former satellites are all witnessing strong economic growth rates based largely on the benefits of a free-market economic system and freer global trade regime that the US has championed pretty much since its independence from Britain. Gasoline costs $4.00 a gallon in the US because you bought that Made in China 64” Plasma Screen TV last year. The plant that made that TV has expanded fivefold in the last 9 months and the shift supervisor when your gargantuan teletheater was produced (he’s now Director of Operations) has upgraded from moped to Toyota sedan. Both these developments mean that more fuel is being used elsewhere in the world (as oposed to the 25% of global oil consumption in the US), driving up your pump prices at home. So when Senator Charles Schumer of New York spews lickspittle while screaming about oil company profits, it begs the question as to whether he, or any of his colleagues in the Senate, understands basic economics.

Mind you, McCain isn’t much better, but he’s marginally more honest about his grasp of economics. He and Senator Clinton’s proposals for a Federal gasoline tax holiday represented the worst kind of pandering. With McCain one hopes that it was at least partly driven by an orthodox view that cutting taxes is never a bad idea. He was at least honest when he almost, sort-of, admitted he was tax-cutting for votes. Clinton was just desperate, but compounded pandering with stupidity by proposing another windfall profits tax on Big Oil to fund her vote-soliciting gas tax holiday. But both of them should have realized that the best they could hope for would be that gasoline retailers would split the difference with consumers, resulting in a massive 9 cent per gallon price reduction (while prices are climbing). Offering gasoline retailers a potential 18 cent per gallon windfall wasn’t very smart. But it didn’t raise serious questions about the mental health of either Senator. Not so for the sponsors of The Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008. Oh, and Obama was opposed to the gas tax holiday. But he was in favor of it before he was against it. (In 2000, he supported a Bill in the Illinois legislature that would have temporarily suspended the state gas tax).

Who do you think would be victorious in the battle of wits between the Seven Mental Dwarves of the Senate (all of them named "Dopey") that sponsored this Bill and the Finance, Taxation , and Law Departments of America’s oil companies? Would such paragons of virtue as Sen. Harry Reid prevail as a latter day Mr. Smith against the rapine oil companies? Or would a 25% tax hike on US oil companies simply be passed on to the consumer, further driving up gas prices? I know which way I would bet. But Sen. Chuck Schumer was particularly irate that the authorization for the US Attorney General to sue OPEC producers for their “monopoly” powers included in the Bill should be voted down. The fact that the US remains one of the worlds Top Five oil producers (number 2 after Saudi Arabia by some measures) and that its single largest source of imported oil is Canada (not an OPEC member to the best of my knowledge) seem to have eluded Chuck.

Can we go back to Economics 101? Supply and Demand. Right now, demand for oil is extremely high at just under 87 million barrles per day. This is higher than markets had envisaged, but already showing signs of falling. New oil fields (and oil fields are being discovered as I write) as well as oil sources that are not profitable at lower prices (Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands, for example) take time to come on line and meet this higher demand. Similarly, high fuel prices create inflation and slow economic growth as well as discourage oil consumption, which in turn brings down demand for oil. Within 18 months from now, the price of a barrel of oil will be back in the $90 - $100/bbl range. Perhaps the Seven Mental Dwarves who sponsored The Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008 should instead draft Senate guidelines requiring that members of the Senate have obtained a basic educational level that includes passing Econ 101. That of course would thin the Senate out considerably AND substantially diminish eligible candidates. Supply and Demand.

Sadly, the Bleeding Heart refused to speak with me or provide written remarks for this piece. He said that Your Genteel Moderator had gone too far, and that accusing Senate Democrats of stupidity (which I do, but do not believe is confined to the Democrats) and the high price of gas to the failure of Communism (which I do, but he resents, having done a junior year abroad at LSE) was “absolutely unacceptable”. The Bleeding Heart believes that his hybrid SUV is the answer to the oil crisis. The Bloated Plutocrat was unable to file comments. He is at an Exxon-Mobile Board meeting and invitational golf tournament…

PS – Your Genteel Moderator must confess to a degree of bias in this matter. I dislike oil companies. In early 1990 while still at University but looking for a job, I went to interview with Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles. That day they let go more than 10,000 people. This was because oil prices were low and they were scaling back exploration and refining activities. They didn’t offer me a job.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Uh-Oh, Airline Re-regulation?

With jet fuel prices soaring and almost nothing left for airlines to cut (removing the seats altogether appears to have been too much for the FAA), it looks like it’s routes and jobs under the knife now. United announced substantial cuts earlier this week, grounding its 737 fleet, following previous moves by American some two weeks ago, and Continental is following with plans to cut routes and jobs as well. Expect similar moves from other US and international carriers in the near future. United has announced it will shed roughly 15% of its domestic seats on offer and American and Continental are in a similar range. Airline analysts have long talked about the need for domestic carriers to drop nearly 20% total seats on offer to regain profitability, so further cuts could be in order. So far, going back to Delta’s cuts at the end of 2007, most carriers have cut in the 12% - 15% range, but with fuel costs up over 80% in the last year, those cuts are likely to be seen as insufficient.

Despite the economic downturn/recession, demand for flights remains high, at this time. This means one thing. Expect rising fares on remaining routes. Of course should these fare increases work in tandem with further recession, we may see falling demand at some time in the future. That of course may lead to further route cuts, getting to a point where we have very limited service and high expense on a number of routes. But wait, we’ve been there before. Thirty years ago de-regulation was promoted to increase competitiveness in the industry and produce increased service and lower prices. Now after thirty years, and the coming and going of some 200 airlines in the US, the question of regulation is again under discussion.

Is it more regulation or less regulation that is needed to pull the airlines out of their slump? There’s definitely room for debate. On the one hand, deregulation did spur competition and lead to increased airline capacity and lower prices. This was undoubtedly good for consumers. Unfortunately, a lot of short-lived, predatory competitors emerged under de-regulation, rising on the scene under-capitalized, extracting fairly painful concessions from unions with a promise of a brighter future, slashing prices to generate passenger trial (and drive those stock prices up in the short term), and then going out with a whimper after being unable to sustain operations at rock-bottom prices. In the meantime, they succeeded in slashing total industry profitability and causing real pain at the major domestic carriers. If you think about it, have the US carriers ever been “well” since the so-called crisis of the First Gulf War? Of course, one of the major complaints inside the industry is over the 25% limit on ownership by foreign interests of domestic airlines. There is a view that these limits have diminished investment in the industry and contributed to the death by a thousand cuts inflicted by the small-cap, fly-by-night (had to work that in there somehow) come-and-go airlines.

“Limited re-regulation is the only long-term solution for an industry that is continually seeking government assistance," Robert Roach Jr., an executive with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said at a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the state of the airline industry. James Little, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, believes that to save the faltering airline industry, "I think the time has come for some kind of re-regulation… For labor, we need some kind of transition program, so that pension plans can be saved if there are mergers and acquisitions." With employees having born a substantial cost in the fight for competitiveness over the last decade, this call for some form of “re-regulation” will come as no surprise. Certainly few would argue that while de-regulation brought with it more flights at cheaper rates, it also brought diminished in-flight service and, overall, a less pleasant flying experience.

But hold on a minute. What is it that people want? Lot’s of cheap flights with admittedly Aeroflot levels of service, or fewer, more expensive flights pitched more at the Singapore Airlines level of service? Obviously what consumers want are cheap flights with fantastic amenities, but recognizing that this scenario is unrealistic, the answer is that what the country wants is lots of cheap flights. And in the post de-regulation era, that’s what it got. The result was a massive expansion in airline travel by Americans. According to the Bureau of Transport Statistics (please see last week’s Blog), in 1977, people paid for 149.5 million flights on US domestic airlines. In 2007, that number was 769 million. That growth (five times as many domestic seats sold in 2007) cannot be accounted for by population growth – or growth in corporate travel budgets. The fact is that America got what it wanted: cheap flights. The price it paid was horrible service, massive congestion, under-investment in infrastructure, and vicious competition.

The industry itself is not convinced that re-regulation is an answer, although government measures to limit competition under any other name would be most welcome. They would love to see higher barriers to entry for new airlines (diminishing the number of one route wonders that slash major carrier profits before disappearing in a Chapter 11 cloud), and would likely welcome measures that effectively establish minimum prices on certain less profitable routes (provided it isn’t actually called price controls). But mostly one hears about more deregulation: a freeze on government fees (have you looked at the fees and taxes section of you airfare lately – there’s a healthy tax-farming business afoot if nothing else); a reduction in fuel taxes (unlike the average motorist, a break on Avgas would add up); easing competition rules on airline M&As, and most of all; the removal of the 25% limit on foreign ownership of US airlines.

It is a point well made. There is virtually no other sector of the US economy in which this limit on foreign direct investment exists, certainly not one as mundane as cattle carting. The fact is that that sometime in the next year or so, Emirates Airlines of Dubai will become the world’s largest passenger carrier. Look at booked sales for Boeing and Airbus – the Middle East and Southeast Asia are leading the charts. If consolidation of the domestic industry is generally seen as a bad idea, then direct foreign investment or acquisition is the likely answer. There really are no legitimate security concerns and, before screaming blue murder, the unions should consider that most European airlines are used to much more costly deals with labor than the US unions can even imagine.

Predictably, the Bleeding Heart and Bloated Plutocrat had strong and widely variant views on the matter. “De-regulation was just another excess of the 80s. We saw the folly of big hair, shoulder pads, and Boy George, why can’t we accept that airline deregulation was a Gordon Gecko fantasy gone wild. The unions have been bled dry by successive agreements that saw them paying for bad corporate planning. With the fuel crisis and economic downturn, it’s time to reestablish a regulatory framework for the airlines that will ensure good service for consumers, better safety, and decent wages for airline employees”, said the Bleeding Heart. “Well, I’m torn”, noted the Bloated Plutocrat. “I’d love to get rid of all the commoners who fly and return to the days when flying was an enjoyable experience for the select few that could afford it. But it won’t happen. There’s no turning back the clock. All we’ll end up with is an inefficient, slightly expensive system in which large people in clothes that are too small for them continue to fly. No. Open the doors to foreign investment. When Singapore and Emirates are operating the New York – LA route, we’ll at least have a jolly good First Class service!”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and the CPI…

If statistics are the highest order of lies in this phrase about the three types of lies commonly attributed to 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, then the US government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Minicrap for the Orwell aficionados), is the celestial be-all and end-all of lies. Your Genteel Moderator begs your indulgence as he addresses what to some may be an arcane matter of economics. But the continued use by the government of a CPI based on the price of treacle and fairy dust demands our attention.

But why, you may ask? Because, unless you happen to live in Never-Never Land, you may have noticed that treacle and fairy dust do not make up a substantial portion of your monthly expenditures. Off the top of your head, estimate the top 10 costliest expenditures by month that you and your family incur. Would fuel be one of them, perhaps? Do you then imagine that an index compiled to measure the relative increase in the cost of living and from which the inflation rate is essentially derived should reflect that relative weighting? Many people would share your views, but apparently not the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because they believe that fuel (gasoline and diesel for motor vehicle use) accounts for just under 5.5% of your monthly expenditures. In fact, according to today’s CPI formulation, energy costs account for less than 10% of your total monthly expenditures. That may be so for the Hollywood glamoratti and the Greenwich Hedge Fund Manager, but for rather more ordinary people, not so much.

The easiest way to calculate annual inflation is by using the CPI in the same months from two consecutive years, subtracting the base year from the second year, dividing the result by the base year and multiplying by 100. For example, the CPI for April 2007 was 206.686 and for April 2008 was 214.823. Therefore, CPI derived inflation year-on-year to April was 3.93%. Of course that’s based on a CPI weighting that puts gasoline costs at less than 5.5% of your expenditures and total energy costs at less than 10% of total expenditures. Let’s look at the price of gasoline for the same period. According to the US Energy Information Agency the average price of regular gasoline across the country has increased by just under 73 Cents in the past year (as of May 26). Using the same method of calculation as CPI derived inflation, then average US price for regular gasoline has increased by 22.68% in the past year (although I would like the Energy Information Agency to show me where I can get gas for $ 3.93 a gallon!). We could run through home heating oil as well but suffice it to say that that too has increased, if not as dramatically. For diesel fuel, a significant distribution cost driving food and other price increases, the increase is much more dramatic at 67.66%. That means at least a two thirds increase in the cost of getting goods to market (unless you distribute by sailboat of course). The point is that with gasoline prices having risen by nearly 23% (and diesel by nearly 68%), the CPI derived inflation rate of 3.93% is nonsense.

There have been and continue to be numerous criticisms of the CPI based on everything from sound economic theory to politically based tinkering. A quick review of internet based resources alone will give you more information on the subject than you could possibly want. But it is difficult to argue with the fact that a year on year inflation rate of 3.93% seems absurdly low in view of sky-rocketing energy costs. Add to this picture the falling value of the USD (which by some measures has fallen by more than 30% since 2000) driving up the cost of imports (i.e. virtually every manufactured good that you buy these days) and what we have is the portrait of an economy in real crisis. Add to this the substantial decline in relative liquidity, i.e. the widely touted “credit crunch”, and we have a potential Perfect Storm brewing, and certainly a rather sticky conundrum for monetary policy.

In any event, not only are gasoline prices painful and inconvenient, they are also having a multiplier effect on the much discussed recession that the government is vastly understating through a highly distorted CPI. The Bloated Plutocrat had this to say. “If you are relying on government statistics to understand the economy old boy, you are going to lose your shirt. Run for the Swiss Franc and Gold Bullion. The equity market is a total bear and the bond market is going to be flooded with punters and prats! Nothing’s going to change in the near term and neither one of the esteemed Senators likely to be elected in November have the intellectual capacity or political power to do a damned thing about it. Aside from the global shift in economic power away from the US in general, we are looking at conditions that bear some resemblance to the late 1970s, but without a Ronald Reagan to convince us that everything is going to be just fine.” The Bleeding Heart was somewhat less enlightening. “I suppose that the fuel / energy cost weighting in the CPI should be substantially increased, especially as those costs are disproportionately impactful on lower income groups. I know that fuel costs are definitely driving up the cost of tickets on the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry this summer!”

A CPI that weights total energy costs at less than 10% of one’s total monthly expenditure is at best inaccurate and, at worst, fraudulent. Were these costs more appropriately accounted for, adjusted inflation would likely be upwards of 5%, a level that is extremely disconcerting when looking at interest rates. Nevertheless, don’t expect a change in the CPI basket any time soon, the BLS think it works just fine…

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Starbucks – Pretty Good After All…

Whether you love them, or love to hate them, the caffeinated equivalent of the fictional Fox Books (You’ve Got Mail) coming to destroy your neighborhood, or provide good coffee where the thrice-boiled muck beaker has reigned supreme, commands an opinion. Whether that opinion is entirely positive or of the more negative nature, the fact is that the company is firmly entrenched in pop culture and has transformed the ritual of morning coffee for millions around the world. The sin of over-expansion has moved from the realm of pundit commentary to a Wall Street factoid and has management pursuing a new strategy of closing down some outlets in oversaturated markets. Despite the slowed openings and some closings, the company has managed to stand by its commitments to the coffee growing community that while not exactly earth-shaking, are tangible.

Your Genteel Moderator is no fan of corporate social responsibility reporting. While occupying armies of people and consuming vast resources and time within a company, they have little to no impact on critics, and the rest of the world would rather make incisions in their own eyeballs with dull and rusty razor blades than read through the politically correct drudgery of such reports. Having attended, and even spoken at, a number of conferences dedicated to the topic of corporate social responsibility, it is my humble opinion that this is a field of activity so self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, and self-fulfilling as to rank right up there with the great Y2K consulting hoax. Nevertheless, serious companies that are willing to endure the horrors of the process, and the reasonable questions from their shareholders about the expense involved, and have their reports reviewed and verified by credible third parties, as Starbucks have done, do deserve some recognition for their efforts. It is reasonably certain that such recognition will not translate directly into share price increases, but they may have some positive impact on consumer off-take, and the congratulatory tone of some obscure blog will undoubtedly assuage any queries from the Board about the expense…

The Bloated Plutocrat was derisive. “I don’t know which so called ‘management consulting' firm invented this corporate social responsibility lark, but I’d like to buy their shares. They may have more fluff to sell. On the other hand, I better not hear about any companies in which I have a Board voice spending money on this nonsense. If people want to know whether companies are socially responsible or not (and why this should matter is beyond me – it should be profitability that they focus on), they should read the newspapers. Those bone-idle twits that call themselves journalists are forever harping on about the evil done by companies, except of course when they’re falling over themselves to print the bumpf fed to them by the PR agencies of the same companies!”

The Bleeding Heart was typically conflicted. “I do love a venti machiatto in the morning. But Starbucks is so ubiquitous and we certainly don’t want them running the little bakeries and coffee shops in Fairfield County into the ground. I suppose that as long as they are paying top dollar to coffee growers they are acting responsibly, but I wish they would keep the Pumpkin Latte on the menu year round…”

The fact is that any company that relies on CSR reporting to shore-up an image damaged by irresponsible business practices will have wasted time and money for either little result or a substantial backfire. If one is going to trumpet one’s own responsibility, it had better be reflected in the company’s core business practices. Regardless of the pundit opinions about Starbucks’ community impact, its pricing, whether it promotes homosexuality, is for or against Israel, or whether its logo is crypto-sexual, (people really have too much time on their hands) the biggest issues at the core of Starbucks business (besides sustained profitability) are its treatment of employees and the ethics of its coffee bean purchases.

The fact of the matter is that on both these issues the company does well enough to merit an above expectations conclusion. With the cost of healthcare benefits for its employees exceeding its total green coffee purchases, and a majority of those purchases being Fair Trade Certified (and, on average, some $0.20/pound higher than the Fair Trade mandated minimum), Starbucks has some empirically verifiable data to make the case that they are indeed acting responsibly in the daily conduct of their business. So, the next time you’re in a Starbucks, have paid your $7.50 for a bizarrely named mix of coffee and milk savagely beaten into a froth that occupies nearly half of your grande, and decided not to plump for a wireless connection, take a moment to read the treacle-sweet summary of their annual CSR Report. If you are able to stay-awake and/or quash the feelings of suicidal rage that it will produce in most people, perhaps you should consider a well-paid career in social reporting. If that doesn’t sound interesting to you, then simply note that while it is easy to take pot-shots at Starbucks, it turns out that they are pretty responsible when it comes to the things that really matter.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Colgate-Palmolive Won’t Wash Hands of Sharpton Award

The well known maker of cleaning, health/beauty products, and toothpaste holds its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York City today, a city that the Rev. Al Sharpton, activist and President of the National Action Network (NAN), a national civil rights organization, has vowed to shut down with protests over the not guilty verdict in the Sean Bell shooting case. The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) is an ostensibly non-partisan, but decidedly conservative, NGO promoting ethics in the public and corporate sectors. This morning it denounced a response from Colgate-Palmolive Chairman, Reuben Mark, to its April 14 letter urging the company to “repudiate” a National Action Network Corporate Excellence Award for “fostering diversity in the workplace”. The response was a very politely worded “thanks for sharing”.

NLPC, which has a history of campaigning against Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, another well-known and sometimes controversial civil rights activist, wrote to the Colgate-Palmolive Chairman on April 14 demanding that he repudiate the award from NAN because, according to NLPC President Peter Flaherty, “Receiving a ‘corporate excellence’ award from Sharpton is a dubious honor indeed. His organization, the National Action Network, has been beset by legal and accounting problems for years, prompting a number of investigations. Moreover, recent media reports indicate that Sharpton may soon be indicted by a grand jury. Colgate-Palmolive received the award for fostering an ‘inclusive workplace.’ But who is Sharpton to be handing out such an award in light of his involvement in hoaxes such as the Tawana Brawley episode and the Duke rape case? Sharpton is not a legitimate civil rights leader.”

“Strong words and a tough stance by NLPC, but if being ‘beset by legal and accounting problems for years’ and ‘pending grand jury indictments’ were to become barriers to corporate engagement with politicians, it would mean the end of corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill.”, said the Bloated Plutocrat. “Colgate-Palmolive are shrugging off their extortion payments to NAN. This should come as no surprise to anyone. But with every pressure group out there, including the loony enviro-thugs, doing the same thing, the cost of doing business is being driven up sharply and tax write-off corporate philanthropy that would have gone to the arts or other good causes are being diverted to fill the coffers of every activist/stuntsman with enough media-savvy to carry off a ‘donate or pay’ scheme” he added. The Bleeding Heart was beside himself over the NLPC. “These right-wing hit-men hide behind the veil of ‘ethics’ when all they really are is another wet-work character assassination unit for the vast right-wing conspiracy that stole the White House for George Bush and dragged us into war. I’ll bet that Flaherty and his minions are out there digging away trying to fabricate some story about Sen. Obama at this very minute.”, remarked the Bleeding Heart.

While there is no question that NLPC has unearthed real issues of concern with regard to transparency and accounting rules in Sharpton’s dealings, this effort to force a “repudiation” of the NAN award that Colgate-Palmolive received looks a lot like the very type of NGO extortion to which the Bloated Plutocrat refers. The fact that NLPC chose to wait two and half weeks after receiving Mark’s response for the day of the Colgate-Palmolive shareholder meeting to comment on the letter is a transparent act of PR stuntsmanship lacking in both subtlety and good sense. Sharpton’s arrest yesterday during the protests he arranged to “shut down the City” will certainly generate more news coverage than NLPC’s press release and additional NAN organized protests blocking traffic today will cause more inconvenience and annoyance to the company than NLPC criticism. Colgate-Palmolive were recognized by a leading, if controversial, civil rights organization for doing a good job of fostering diversity in the workplace. Why should they repudiate that?

On the other hand, as Flaherty notes, they don’t seem that proud of it either. Perhaps it’s just a case of poor website management, but the NAN “Corporate Excellence Award” is not listed alongside the many other awards for promoting diversity in the workplace given place of honor under the rubric “Awards” on the company’s site.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Your Genteel Moderator apologizes for taking so long to address this issue, some three weeks after the campaign, run in Mexico, was pulled. As good as Absolut’s marketing has been, this really does go to show how even the best can get it horribly wrong from time to time, and recover. The really important question is how much Absolut was consumed prior to or during the marketing review in which the ad was approved, or whether it was a local decision fueled by contraband tequila in the Vin & Sprit (Absolut’s parent company) offices in Mexico City?

“I would just like to thank the bright eyed boys and girls at Teran/TBWA here in Mexico City for creating yet another brilliant iteration of the Absolut campaign with this witty pun on the Reconquista, US immigration policy, and border security during a US Presidential election year”, said Sven Svenson, Director of Marketing for NAFTA at Vin & Sprit, just before downing another shot of tequila. No he didn’t, and to the best of our knowledge there is no Sven Svenson at Vin & Sprit (and if there is, ursaekta, Sven). But some poor sod did review and approve the Teran/TBWA ad a month or so ahead of the March 31 announcement by Pernod Ricard that it would acquire 100% of Vin & Sprit, thereby putting itself on a nearly equal footing with Diageo, the leading beverage alcohol company in the world. It seems unlikely that he or she will have prospered under the subsequent acquisition.

These things happen, and they almost never happen because someone in senior management with a “big-picture overview” evaluated the risks and decided to pull the trigger anyway. These types of bad decisions are almost always made by well-intentioned, intelligent people who really didn’t understand that something as simple as a “funny ad” could end up costing them their jobs. Your Genteel Moderator recalls a similar, albeit smaller scale, issue when Maori (as in the indigenous people of New Zealand) was used in a promotional campaign for L&M cigarettes in Israel. The Maori were not amused, but the twenty-something year olds who put the campaign together for the Israeli market couldn’t understand how it came to be an international issue virtually overnight, or why Altria’s Chairman was being questioned about it by Maori representatives at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. It becomes an issue when a global brand icon or industry leading company that is supposed to “think globally and act locally”, skips the thinking part.

On the other hand, Vin & Sprit were quick to act when it became apparent that there were numerous people north of the Rio Grande who failed to appreciate the wittiness of the ad. There was indeed an extensive outcry with a number of bloggers leading the charge and I can assure you that it was not a fun couple of days in the external affairs function at Vin & Sprit. Jeff Moran, Director of Public Relations and Events at Vin & Sprit’s Absolut Spirits Company Inc., based in New York, had a very bad week as his e-mail address and telephone numbers were quickly published across the web. If reports of his responses to inquiries by the public are to be believed, he didn’t handle it very well. Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin led a very effective charge on the issue, albeit rather heavier on the righteous indignation than might be seemly, and posts on her site suggest Moran was somewhat peeved:

"I called Jeffrey Moran at the number you show, & was surprised that he was the one who answered the phone. I simply told him the Mexican ad was horrendous & that I would never buy any Absolut products & he should be fired. He said it wasn’t his idea, & hung up.
Larry PitetSheridan, WY "

Leading Moran no doubt to avail himself of some medicinal samples from the office product display….

Nevertheless, the company did act relatively quickly to pull the ads and within days of the campaign being launched had closed down the campaign and apologized for any offense it may have caused in the United States. There really isn’t much more the could have done and the fact that they did so in a relatively timely manner probably saved them from allowing pundits to develop a potentially serious consumer boycott. Of course, being Swedish helps. It’s hard for even the most vocal critics to work up serious invective. “This is just the latest example of Sweden’s vicious hatred for and intolerance of America, like when they called the Swedish Bikini Team home early, or made Volvos”. It just doesn’t work. If only it were “Absolute pays de la France”…

The Bleeding Heart was amused. “The ad was silly and it appears that only the haters and anti-immigration scare mongers were able to get themselves worked up about it. It says a lot that conservatives are so desperate to find some way to keep these myths about illegal immigration alive that they whipped this up into a tempest in a shot glass. No educated person can doubt that the Mexican –American War was an entirely American provocation and a bald land-grab. Nor can they be surprised to find that Mexicans would rather the American Southwest still belonged to them. I bet this had Lou Dobbs choking on his Schlitz! In any event, Absolut will most definitely be on the menu at our Cinco de Mayo Party!”

The Bloated Plutocrat was apparently caught short, however. “What a bunch of nonsense! Who’s getting worked up about some booze ad? Everyone needs to calm down about this Reconquista nonsense. What we need is a functional guest worker program in this country. If you kick out 15 million illegal Mexicans, who's going to train the Hondurans to do the gardening? Besides, Vodka is a Bolshevik drink. You don’t think Molotov was mixing gin Martinis, do you?” Mind you, it was quite late last night when I finally spoke to the Bloated Plutocrat and, even over the phone, I thought I could detect the faint smell of a peaty single malt on his breath.