Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Chrysler Must Die

It’s a lesson we all learn, sooner or later, usually as kids. Be it a bicycle, a skateboard, or simply trying to grow into feet already two times bigger than necessary for your body, a tragic fall occurs – right smack dab in the middle of a patch of concrete. As far as world tragedies, it doesn’t rank that high – a bloody knee and/or elbow. [Although, I am reminded of a Mel Brooks’ quote, which goes something along the lines of “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.”] The lesson is not how to prevent another fall. Rather, it deals with the dreaded Band-Aid removal. It’s gonna yank hair, and it’s gonna hurt like the dickens. So, pull it all at once, really fast.

Okay now, enough is enough. Brace yourself people. It’s going to sting, and maybe a good deal longer than just a bit, but it’s necessary. We have to let Chrysler wither and die. No more bailout, no more heroic rescue efforts. It’s a lost cause. No sense throwing good money after billions and billions of bad. It’s time to cut bait and fish elsewhere.

Letting Chrysler go the way of the Dodo bird and Pan Am airlines is no little lark. We’re looking at thousands of employees and families. But, does it really make sense to poor billions and billions of dollars into the company? Chrysler has already received $4 billion in bailout money. Despite that, they still have their tin cup out waving for an additional $5 billion just to survive – not thrive, mind you, but survive. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the owners of Chrysler, Cerebus Capital, only have $7.4 billion invested, the price they paid Daimler AG for the American icon of ineptness.

Pulling the plug on Chrysler is probably not politically appetizing, particularly for those seeking electoral votes in Michigan. Additionally, labor union membership across the country will be literally crapping their pants. However, when putting aside emotions for logical, rationale reasoning, some pretty compelling evidence pops up to support other possible options for economic recovery.

1) The Numbers. Chrysler auto sales are off over 40% year over year. 40%! General Motors is in the same boat. Ford and the other manufacturers are off another third. Simple supply and demand here folks. There’s not enough demand – not by a long shot – to accommodate the manufacturing capacity. Will there be demand when the global economy recovers? Good question. Here’s an answer for you. Did you like the economy of the past five years, up to October of 2008? Did you own shares of Ford, General Motors, or Daimler AG (owners of Chrylser up until the summer of ’07)? How did you like your performance vis à vis the general market? Ha! You didn’t, did you? If you’re lucky enough to not be familiar with those “returns,” you can find them graphed here – Ford, GM, Daimler AG. Note how the market felt about Daimler kicking Chrysler to the curb. C’mon, you weren’t surprised, were you?
2) The Cars. Are you kidding me? When was the last time Chrysler hit it big on design? Sure, they’ve had some big wins. Remember the Ram trucks and their Peterbilt-esque front ends? Yeah, that was the late ‘80s. The minivan? Even older. Durango? Jeep? Don’t think so. Sure, there’s little bumps of innovative design – the Viper, the Prowler, and the Magnum come to mind – but those cars were designed and built for niche markets, and were certainly not the financial cornerstones on which to prop up the business. About the best new car design related to mass appeal was the PT Cruiser. Puh-leeze. But, regardless of the outside of the car, there’s one thing common to all Chryslers, and that is the very cheap, u-g-l-y, you ain’t got no alibi interior. Comparable to a European car? Yeah, like a movie director compares Pamela Anderson to Meryl Streep – one’s made of plastic and good for a night or two of bouncing around; the other is a timeless classic, delivering outstanding performance year over year. [My wife is never going to believe that I compared my dream girl Pam less favorably to anybody. I’m getting old.] Let’s cut to the chase by asking this: When was the last time you heard of someone considering buying a Chrysler car? If it wasn’t for fleet sales to rental car agencies and corporate cars, I’d already be writing about something else.
3) The Terms. Okay, selling crappy cars means you better come up with some good promotions. Look at what Chrysler is reduced to offering today. “Employee Pricing Plus” is what they call it. The company is willing to sell the car for essentially no profit, with a money back cash bonus eliminating the need to put anything down. Not exactly a recipe for healthy free cash flow, now is it? They want another $5 billion to support this business model? Okay, now what will it really take to create some degree of sustainability? Give us a real number.
4) Robert Nardelli. Aside from the entire history of the airline industry, perhaps no one has been personally responsible for the erosion of more shareholder value than Mr. Nardelli. Don’t worry about Bob though, for he has a certain ability to land on his feet. With Home Depot crumbling around his autocratic throne, he slid out the door with a $200 million plus package. I can’t figure out what Cerebus/Chrysler was thinking, but for whatever reason they offered him the helm of Chrysler. Fast forward a couple of years to today. Whether Chrysler lives or dies, we should soon be rid of Bob forever. I do know this, if he gets another job at a publicly traded company, I’m immediately shorting the stock. I’ll do so on the mere rumor of that company beginning the recruitment effort. Oh, and please don’t evoke Bob’s experience with GE. Giving him credit for GE’s past growth is like giving the rooster credit for the dawn (with all due apologies to Ann Richards for stealing her quote referencing G.H.W. Bush). Advice to Bob: Next time you drive past a neighborhood lemonade stand, stop, look, and listen. Take it as your B-school education.
5) The Options. The U.S. government can give money to Chrysler. But, we’d be better off lighting a big stack of $20 bills and using the heat to provide energy for Detroit during the cold winter months. The best option for the company is Fiat leaping to the rescue. Yes, that Fiat of “fix it again, Tony” yore. You know times are bad for your car company when Fiat is positioned as your savior. What Fiat has going for itself is a variety of small car models, something Chrysler has a noticeable dearth of. Bad news is that it will take upward of two years to get Chrysler up and running stamping those out of U.S. factories. Two years? Yeah, at the rate of $9 billion a year, that’s not going to do.

Bailing out Chrysler just doesn’t add up. The company is doomed, plain and simple, and life lessons tell us it’s better to pull quickly, all at once. Better to take the $5 billion and pay it out to the employees right now – a super severance, so to speak. Or, maybe this: You know the real figure is more likely $10-15 billion to make Chrysler survive long enough to indebt the entire country, and still ultimately fail. How about using that money to seed new industry for Detroit? Maybe fund some software startups; a couple of biotechs perhaps? $10 billion is a lot of venture capital – a lot of innovation and creativity. At any rate, any option is better than a bail out rescue. The question is, “Will we have the guts?”

Hey, just this guy’s opinion.

Like what you read? Hate? Either way, follow me on Twitter @RayHartjen

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Risking Our Returns

No real surprise here, but most of the world hates America. You don’t think so? Really? Well you’re wrong, simple as that. The majority of the world’s population (outside the United States, that is) hates us for any number of reasons. Let us begin to count thy ways:
1. We swim in pools that hold thousands of gallons of perfectly drinkable water
2. We sleep indoors every night we want to
3. When we sleep indoors, we often do so with animals; we call those animals “pets;” others throughout the world – nearly all of Africa, a great deal of Asia, and big chunks of Central and South America – would call those same animals “livestock”
4. We actually spend money to feed those pets of ours, all the while much of the world struggles to feed their children
5. We have skinny, blonde celebutard actresses who actually dress their pets in tiny clothes
6. When we turn 40, our mid-life crisis entails internal debates of “Corvette or Mercedes convertible;” elsewhere, if they’re lucky enough to turn 40, it’s the muni bus or maybe a less stinky yak
7. We have pizza delivery

That list can go on and on, and it does. I haven’t even brought up big screen TVs, high speed internet porn, booze, or really any of the seven deadly sins – although admittedly this sentence toes the line. But, when you dig deeper, all those reasons are “symptoms” of the hatred; the “root cause” is really just one. The Typhoid Mary, so to speak, is money. We’re rich. We’re swimming in it. And, as such, we are afforded the luxuries that so many in world do without. They’re jealous, and that’s not a fault. Who wouldn’t be?

Now, we’re rich primarily because we’re willing to take risks. It’s a basic tenement of a free market, entrepreneurial, capitalistic society – the greater the expected risk, the greater the expected rate of return. The good ol’ risk/return ratio. And, watch out – we’re in danger of screwing the whole thing up.

Note: That loud noise you’ve heard since October is Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman rolling over in their graves.

It’s in vogue these days to rip Wall Street – the beacon of greed and excess in the storm that is the world-wide recession. We tend to forget that those losses are inextricably tied to Main Street. The reason those collateralized debt securities of Wall Street are in default? It’s because people – not just companies, but people – over-extended themselves. Typical scenario in a typical town – for argument’s sake, let’s call it Phoenix – goes something like this:
1. Dude, whose job is cutting grass, buys a $200,000 house, putting a down payment of 10% or $20,000
2. Real estate market goes mad, and house has a market value of $400,000
3. Dude refinances his house, putting no more money in, but taking out a big chunk of equity, say $100,000
4. Dude buys a Lexus and a Range Rover
5. Real estate market goes mad again, and house goes up in value to $600,000
6. Dude refinances again, takes out another $100,000 – vacations in Europe and buys a Porsche
7. Real estate market collapses. House is worth $220,000. Dude has a mortgage balance of $380,000. Oh, and he also has a used Lexus, a used Range Rover, and a used Porsche, now collectively worth $18,739.
8. Dude loses his job and mails his house keys into the bank – after first flushing 18 bags of concrete down his three house toilets.
9. Dude drinks beer at the bar and bitches at the AIG bonuses and blames Wall Street for his troubles.

Yep, always someone else’s fault.

That’s when things go sour. But, what if things go like they did in numbers 1-7 above, only this time the dude doesn’t get greedy and hog material, tangible assets (like luxury automobiles)? If he doesn’t take equity out, he’s still paying on an original $180,000 mortgage on a house now worth $220.000. Dude has doubled his equity, and doubling ain’t bad.

He took a risk, and was hoping it would turn out to pay big bucks. For a while, it did. In the end it hurt him. Who’s fault? His. Just playing the game, he was, and that’s cool. More risk, more potential return. But, keep in mind, the ante of the game is more risk. Risk. Dude, look it up in the dictionary.

In battling out of the recession, we have to be sure not to take the risk premium out of the market. Any market, for risk brings the promise of potential high returns. Not a promise of guaranteed returns, mind you, but potential returns. And potential returns are enough to drive bold creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity, and that good old “just freakin’ get it done” mind set. It’s the promise of riches that helps us advance and evolve as a society; without it, we’d have one step in the cave, another on a banana peel. Simple proof: Russian automobiles of the mid-70’s. ‘Nuff said.

I said we’re in danger of screwing things up, and we are. We have to be super careful with bailouts. Said differently, not everyone can get one. We saw it with the investment banks in the autumn. Why were some helped and others (Lehman, anyone) left to die? Because, if we bail out everyone, there’s no threat of failure, that’s why. No threat of failure leads to taking hugely irresponsible risks in a game of “one upmanship” to make the highest of all possible returns and allow us to build over-the-top, glass and steel skyscraper phallic symbols to our greatness (see dude in Phoenix, above). Bail out enough to stave off panic from the masses. Let enough fail to keep the game in check.

Okay, investment banks down, automobiles up next. GM will get a lifeline, just to save some jobs. But, jobs be damned – and you heard it here first – Chrysler gets hung out to dry (that’s after being ridden hard, hard into the ground). Two shaky U.S. auto manufacturers are better than one shaky company and two shitty ones. To keep the risk/return ratio relevant, someone has to hurt. Cerebus Capital, how’s that $7.4 billion investment in Chrysler paying off for you? You took the risk to potentially make billions. It didn’t work out. Don’t bitch about it. You knew what you were doing. [Oh, and Bob Nardelli, don’t expect a golden exit package like the one you swindled from Home Depot.]

Speaking of bitching, here’s one final word. Words, rather. Quit bitching about the AIG bonuses, people. You want to make big bucks too? Here’s a prescription. Get off your lazy, pompous asses and take a risk. You can always quit your relatively safe job in a cozy corporation and jump into the shark-filled waters of the American dream – start your own business, draw nothing in salary for years, work your ass off daily – every day. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the next Famous Amos. Or Ben and Jerry. Or Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith. There’s no different rules for the elite and the rich. Only opportunity, and there’re the same opportunities for everyone. Take the risk. It will pay off big for a few, and it will crush a few on the way. It’s our game. If you don’t like the rules, there’s still a handful of socialists regimes around – have you tried the good life of Boliva lately?

Hey, that’s just this guy’s opinion is all.

If you like what you read, follow me on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pay for (under) Performance

Interesting read in The Wall Street Journal today – front page, right hand side. AIG (American International Group Inc.), now 80% owned by the U.S. government after receiving a series of monetary aid packages (the the tune of just north of $173 billion, thank you very much), is paying out bonuses of about $165 million. The best part? The bonus payments are planned for employees at AIG’s Financial Products business unit, which was responsible for about $40.5 billion in losses last year.

You read that right. $165 million in bonuses for losing $40.5 billion.

Losing $40.5 billion!


One can only imagine what the bonus payment would have been if the unit had stepped up and worked its way to a $50 billion loss. Makes one wonder what their goal is for this year.

Of course, bonus shenanigans are nothing new in the finance community. I’ve even benefited from some of the absurd practices, so who am I to spout off about it? Naturally, that’s not going to stop me, as I’ve never been one to be short on giving opinions.

One thing everybody needs to know right away is this: In the investment business, the people always find a way to carve out their more-than-fair share of the money. Oh, and when I say “people,” let me clarify – that’s not the customers or even the rank and file employees, but rather the “rain makers” that make the deals happen. It simply doesn’t matter if the deal makes money or loses money, whether it’s a buy or a sell, a bearish position or a bullish position, the market goes up or down; the “chop” is always there for the taking. In fact, in the business, they even personalize it and refer to it in almost human terms – my dearest and bestest friend, “Max Chop.”

Don’t get me wrong, there’s incentive aplenty for making some money. But, making money is certainly no requirement. Ever hear of State Street Corp.? Of course you haven’t – it’s a money management business that provides services to the securities industry, but it does provide us a neat little tale. You see, State Street’s CEO, Ronald Logue got a raise in 2008. State Street’s “accomplishments” over the year included taking $3.6 billion in losses, receiving $2 billion in TARP funds from the government, and seeing its stock price fall from $83 to $ 22. Those “highlights” are, admittedly, not that great, so it’s no real surprise to find that Logue’s raise was a measly 1.4%. That’s the bad news for Logue. The good news is that the 1.4% raise equated to $400,000, raising his pay from $28.3 million to 28.7 million. Hey, a guy has to eat.

Such tales of regal compensation are not just recent phenomenon either. You might remember one Stanley O’Neal, former CEO of Wall Street stalwart, er, rather, former Wall Street stalwart and now Bank of America subsidiary, Merrill Lynch. In October 2007, in a “how the hell did I miss that” precursor to the financial crisis that hit the fan a year later, Merrill took a write down of some $8 billion due to losses on crappy subprime mortgage investments. [Hello! Big clue! Bloody knife found on the floor! That and Bear Stearns a couple of months later? If I only had a time machine!] Merrill posted a big loss for the period, and the stock sagged. In the age of accountability, heads had to roll, and the company decided to make a big statement and sever the head at the top. The even reported out publically, almost thumping their chests – O’Neal was not going to receive any additional severance or bonus beyond his $161.5 million package.

Sucka, wha?

Remember, that was for losing a couple of billion. A billion here, a billion there – pretty soon, it adds up to some real money.

It’s not only investment banking, you know. Home Depot paid Robert Nardelli over $200 million to leave, also in 2007 (otherwise known as “the year of the golden parachute”). Interesting to note how that might have been a wise move by Home Depot, as Nardelli has done such a bang up job since then in his new post at the helm of Chrysler. Now, I don’t begrudge these kinds of compensation practices. If we’re stupid enough to tolerate it and pay that kind of money, kudos for them stepping up and cashing those paychecks. Remember, we’re the same society who will actually nod our heads in agreement when hearing a $20 million plus actor bemoan about the “brutal,” “grueling,” and “exhausting” shoot of a feature film. Hey out of touch actor, you’re hardly scrubbing toilets or picking cotton.

No, free enterprise and capitalism will ensure you are paid relative to the value the market places on you. The higher the perceived value, the higher the pay, and that’s a nice correlation that fits so snuggly together, like peas and carrots. The dudes above who got PAID? Good for them, either for having the foresight to write such terms into their employment contracts or for having the good fortune to work for a bunch of knuckleheaded bosses and shareholders. We don’t need to get mad, or for that matter, to get even. We just need to learn from the experience and ask ourselves one little question – How do I get my piece of this seemingly big pie before there’s nothing left but crumbs?

That’s just this guy’s opinion.

If you like what you read, be sure to follow me on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Love, One Reality Show at a Time

This last week, a television tragedy seemed to throw all women for quite the loop. No, Oprah is just fine – thank goodness for that! Same with all the ladies on The View. No need to despair, Desperate Housewives is still on the air. The real big news – OMG, can you believe what happened on The Bachelor!

You have got to be kidding me.

I don’t even know what night it happened. Maybe it was Monday of last week, because about Tuesday, the outcome of the show was the buzz everywhere I turned – on the floor of a show in Las Vegas, in the airport, on a phone call with my wife – and, all that was just Tuesday! Then, there was the radio, more TV, hearing my wife talk on the phone about it, and then having her pepper me with questions about it. It’s never ending, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. At least my wife says it’s not going away until Bonnie Hunt has the final say on her show.

For those of you unaware, apparently the bachelor, on the final day of taping, selected one of the two finalists to be his enduring love, thus eliminating, of course, the other. But, on the live wrap up show some weeks later, he dumps his chosen one for his real love, the aforementioned spurned one. And, that’s where it all started.

“I can’t believe he would do that on national television!”

“How hurt that poor girl must be.”

“How can the second girl possibly accept the guy back?”

“What was he thinking?”

“Would you ever do something like that?”

Wait! Forget all the other questions. Let’s just focus on that last one. No. No, I wouldn’t ever do something like that, although, as a guy, I’m inherently capable of just such an act. No, I wouldn’t do that primarily because I would never go on one of those shows looking for love. People, that just doesn’t work, for either the one who has to make the selection – let’s see, since that person sort of puts the cast/candidates/applicants or whatever they are through a certain amount of tests, let’s call the selector the “tester” - or for the pool trying to be chosen as “the one” – naturally, we’ll call them the testes.

Yes, with one “e.”

Now, I’m far from being an expert on all things love-related. But, I think we can all agree that attempting to find true love on a reality show is a pretty bad idea – a bad idea as far as finding love, that is. It’s a great idea for other goals though, which I’m fairly convinced is the true motivation for most of the testes.

Through my extensive research on the subject, I’ve determined the testers and testes, budding celebutards all, have the following goals when appearing on any of the “looking for love” shows (The Bachelor, The Bachlorette, A Shot of Love, that one with Flava Flav, I Love New York, and all the other trash of “must not see TV”), in order of increasing priority:
1. Be on TV
2. Be on TV and make out with a hottie or two
3. Be on TV, make out with a hottie or two, and win some money
4. Be on TV, make out with a hottie or two, win some money, and make such a spectacle of oneself as to ensure your participation in a spin off show, such as VH1’s I Love Money
5. All of the above, but go so far over the top that you get a entire TV show of YOUR OWN, ala I Love New York, and the spinoff of that spinoff, Real Chance at Love

As I tell my wife, don’t feel sorry for anyone who gets his or her feelings hurt on shows like those – I highly doubt the testes were there in the first place to sincerely get their feelings stroked and find their soul mate. Or, rather, at least most of the testes. There’s probably the odd knuckleheaded one or two who actually thought they’d find love in a reality show – well, they’re just a bit on the ‘tarded side, and I guess they do deserve a bit of pity for that.

So, back to answering my wife’s question - no I wouldn’t do that; pick one girl over the other, then, on national TV, pull the ol’ switcheroo and hook up with the other one instead. No, I wouldn’t do that. That being said, I would trade places with Bret Michaels and appear on Rock of Love. [Honey, that is, of course, if I didn’t already have you J]

Okay, is she gone?

Alright then. Now, where was I? Oh yeah.

Rock of Love is simply the reason I picked up the guitar in the first place. Let’s see, best I can tell, the format of the show is something like this: First, pick an aging rock star. Then, through some selection process I would LOVE to be privy to, somehow choose sixteen or so bimbos of every hair color, ethnicity, and race – diversity is great, except for one necessary commonality that cannot, and will not be negotiated – big, surgically enhanced, augmented breasts. Sixteen girls, sixteen flowing locks of “stripper hair,” sixteen pairs of long, slender legs balanced atop stiletto heels, sixteen pairs of breasts struggling mightily to stay under the skimpiest bits of cloth, and sixteen pairs of eyes buried under enough gaudy makeup to be the envy of every teenage girl in Indiana.

Now, I don’t know what’s in it for the girls, but I can certainly see the attraction for Bret. You ever wonder what the negotiations were like to get the first show started? My crack research staff uncovered the actual call, a portion of which I have transcribed below:

Producer: Okay, Bret, the concept is that we put a bunch of sexy groupie types in one house. You get to hang out with them all, play kissy face, go on “dates,” and then pick different ones out to go behind closed doors, off camera. How’s that sound?

Bret: Uh, that sounds pretty good.

Producer: Great, now about the financial terms, …

Bret: Hey, I’ll have to check with my banker, but I think I’d be prepared to pay up to $100,000.

Currently, Bret is halfway through his third season of the show. Hmm. I wonder what happened to the first two girls Bret picked?

Hello! It’s no big freakin’ surprise that ol’ Bret is on the third edition of this show. You think he’s going to find true love this time around? Ha! If you think so, I’ve got some Citigroup shares that would make a sound investment for you. It says right here Bret’s going to ride this for as long as people watch and sponsors buy ad time – he’s a guy after all. He’s living the guy dream, and he doesn’t even have to work for it. They’re working for him!. I don’t think Bret’s dead, but every guy 13 to 87 is convinced he is in heaven.

Of course, that’s just this guy’s opinion.