Monday, April 08, 2019

More Vacancies

And once again I am left scratching my head over local real estate management practices.  First, though, a moment of silence for the downtown Baskin-Robbins.  It's closed, and it sports a fatuous sign inviting you to the Sugarhouse location, a wholly useless alternative for anyone downtown.  All that's left for ice cream downtown is chi-chi shops with such high fat content your arteries clog just walking by and inhaling.

Anyway.  Also closed now are all but one of the Firestone service centers in the valley.  Apparently, they couldn't agree on a new master lease.  I imagine Bridgestone (Firestone's parent) was driving a pretty hard bargain, and I imagine the landlord did not want taken advantage of, but now the landlord is stuck with a bunch of vacant properties and no revenue stream to cover the expenses.  Not a good business model.  Apparently Burt Bros. is expanding into a few of them, but don't expect me to darken their door any time soon, given that they borked two of my cars on three separate occasions.

At least the landlord doesn't have to worry about a pile of similar buildings being slapped up in competition.  The hot money is now in multi-family residential.  Man, I would like to be able to follow the tax and accounting tricks that make chronic overbuilding make sense.  There must be something there.  All I know is that we have medium-rise condos and apartments popping up like mushrooms on the Olympic Peninsula.  And don't think they're taking advantage of affordable housing programs.  A $400,000 condo or $2,000/month apartment isn't affordable housing.  Makes you wonder if there are enough people who can afford all this new space.  Probably aren't.  In which case, here comes the next bubble, every get ready for a big POP!

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"Investment Advisors"

Among my activities as a lawyer is being an arbitrator for FINRA, the entity that regulates financial advisors and brokers.  In fact I'm rated to chair arbitration panels.  There hasn't been much activity of late, which I chalk up to two things: 1) There hasn't been a big downturn in which a bunch of people lost their shirts and want to blame (often with good reason) their financial advisor, and 2) I have blasted both investors and advisors, so counsel doesn't where my biases lie (In truth I have a reality bias, i.e. I go where the facts lead because, as John Adams said in his statement to the jury in his successful defense of the Boston Massacre soldiers, "Facts are stubborn things." [which, btw, has the opposite meaning of Reagan's misquote].).  Which is a long way of saying that, if I issue a warning about someone purporting to be offering financial advice, I know something about the topic, and I'm not acting out of some grudge.

That said, the source of this entry is all the snake-oil salesmen who are purporting to offer financial advice.  I'm going to lay out some warning signs, and I'm going to use one outfit as an example, because it seems to hit the major points.

Agora Financial is a major player in this field.  I've been receiving multiple pieces of spam from them and their assorted affiliates daily for years, so I've been able to watch them over time.  I've done the research so you don't have to (Just another service I provide.).  The principal players are Porter Stansberry and Jim Rickards, with long-time hanger-on James Altucher, and new hanger-on Robert Kiyosaki.

1. The first thing you should ask before you take someone's financial advice is, "Who are these people?"

Stansberry, to put it charitably, a publisher and commentator.  He is a gold bug, which is never a good sign (Gold is a perpetual underachiever as an investment, and anyone who promotes gold-backed currency doesn't understand how money works and is campaigning for a level of deflation that would return us to the 14th Century.).  If he has ever held a financial advisor's or broker's license, he doesn't advertise it, and real financial advisors are obligated to disclose this information.  Another thing he doesn't disclose but would have to if he were legit is that the SEC nailed him about 15 years ago for lying about his advising record in order to promote his stock tip newsletters and also lying about the risks present in the tips (The fact that Karen Martinez and her mob here in the Salt Lake SEC office pulled this off just shows how ham-fisted Stansberry was, because as I have commented before, Martinez led The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.).

Rickards actually has some credentials.  He held several FINRA-regulated licenses (Series 3, 7, 24, 30, and 63) but apparently no longer does.  He has a JD, an LLM in tax, and an MA in international economics.  OK so far.  Then you start seeing things that make you shake your head.  He's another gold bug.  He was general counsel for Long-Term Capital Management, yet another "smartest guys in the room" operation that went disastrously belly-up 20 years ago.  As general counsel he must have been in on everything that mattered, and if he was as prescient as he now claims to be, he would have seen things were going extraordinarily wrong.  But all we know about his role is that he negotiated the government bail-out (i.e. created an exit strategy for the guys who created the problem at taxpayer expense).  He makes noise now about how he has testified before Congress, which he did, 10 years ago.  And it wasn't before one of the financial committees; it was before a subcommittee of the Science and Technology Committee, where he was talking about financial modeling.  I've read the transcript, and it's 14 pages of impressive-sounding blather.  Lately he's been holding himself out as "a high-ranking member of the US Intelligence Community" and "the CIA's Financial Threat and Asymmetric Warfare Advisor".  Let me tell you about folks who claim to be high up in the CIA without actually being in the Company.  They're like those guys who claim to have been Special Ops in Vietnam but it was all secret so they can't tell you about it, but trust them, they earned six Purple Hearts and three Medals of Honor at places like Muk Wah and Sin Loi, it's just that their file is all sealed up in the Pentagon.

James Altucher first blipped on my radar 10 years ago with a bit of total lunacy on Huffington Post claiming the economy had already turned around and to keep it going we needed to ignore several well-founded rules of financial and economic management.  I won't go into details here, but I savaged his position at the time as being perfect if you wanted to replace the economy with a kleptocracy, and it's been his MO ever since.  If I were writing the piece today, I'd start by channeling Luke Skywalker, "Impressive.  Everything you just said is wrong."  He used to say cryptocurrencies were a scam but now heavily promotes them, probably because the winds of hot money shifted (FWIW, I've always considered cryptocurrencies, as presented, a scam.  They aren't currencies, they're securities of a sort, they aren't terribly useful as either investments or wealth storage, and Heaven help these pyramids and the folks inside them when the regulators finally decide to descend on them, but that won't be until all the players have left the building and the only ones left are the marks who bought in because BLOCKCHAIN!).  I'll just leave the rest to someone who has actually dealt with him.

Kiyosaki is a special case.  He has admitted that Rich Dad, Poor Dad is made up, but people keep buying it and keep attending those seminars (Which he never attends.  He just lets his name and smiling face be plastered on them.  For a fee.  BRANDING!).  He bankrupted one of his companies to avoid paying a judgment debt.  The debt was about 1/20 the alleged annual revenue of the company.  With a revenue stream like that, obtaining financing to pay the debt would have been easy, far easier than filing bankruptcy, which means there were only two reasons for filing: Either he just plain wasn't going to pay (no guarantee of that in a Chapter 11 reorganization) or he couldn't get the financing because the revenue stream wasn't as represented.  Neither looks good for a financial advisor.

2. What are they selling?

A financial advisor provides a particular service: Set up an account with an advisor, and the advisor will manage it, the level of management depending on the specifics of your account terms.  And they're obligated to disclose to you how successful they've been.

Agora and companies like it don't sell management services.  They sell tip sheets and seminars ostensibly telling you how to manage your own investments.  And they don't disclose a thing about how successful they have been.  The SEC nailed Stansberry for misrepresenting his track record.  His crystal ball since then hasn't been any better.  Rickards's history is no better.  Altucher?  Go reread the link to Steemit above.  Kiyosaki?  It's all a pitch for "investment courses" that will cost more than any return you can possibly realize.  Run a cost-benefit analysis, and buying what they're selling makes no sense.

3. How are they selling it?

A legitimate advisor wants you to make money and will advise you accordingly.  He or she wants you to make informed decisions about your investments.  If the markets are heading down, the advisor will have you move into hedge positions to protect yourself.

Agora and the like play on fear and bias.  They constantly preach the imminent collapse of the economy.  They've been doing it for years.  They even keep recycling the same pitches, with obvious voiceovers changing the date the collapse is supposed to happen.  And they've been wrong every time (Interestingly, they reject the one thing that could actually bring about the collapse they keep predicting: climate change.).  Fear is a good way to sell snakeoil to marks, but it isn't a good basis for investing.

Neither is bias.  The most noticeable one is political.  These folks are all fans of President Trump, perhaps in part from sincere beliefs, but also in large measure because they are targeting a certain audience.  Nothing inherently wrong with that, unless it colors the advice they're selling.  Which it does.  Currently, they loudly broadcast that Trump is trying to do X, Y, and Z, that these moves are all brilliant, and that they will save everything if Trump is allowed to implement them.  But five years ago they were claiming Obama was trying to do the same things, except that if he did them, they would bring about immediate collapse.  Identical actions tend not to bring about opposite results.  Claiming they do?  I'll let you decide what to call that.

Misrepresenting the "opportunities" you're presenting is not a good advising method either.  Rickards has a doozy where he's holding Trump's budget proposal and says that on a certain page is a plan that will make you scads of money.  I got the document and looked at the page.  It's Trump's proposal for rebuilding national infrastructure (which hasn't happened but desperately needs to because about every aspect of our infrastructure is a wreck).  So if you're a construction contractor, you can bit on government contracts, perform them, and get paid.  That's their "investment" tip.  Another is an "obscure" law that will have the government paying you all sorts of money for your property.  If you look it up, what it says is that if you have a building, and the government decides to lease it, they'll pay you rent.  Another great tip.  A final example I'll give is a mysterious type of trust that will pay you piles of money.  They call it an Eisenhower Trust, undoubtedly just to invoke his name.  What they're really talking about are real estate investment trusts or REITs.  So if you invest in one, you'll get a piece of the return.  More great investment advice that is surely worth its cost.  I would note that REITs were the vehicles that held all the mortgage-backed securities and were the core of the financial crisis in 2008, so a return on your investment might no be such a guarantee.

4. Do they have "affiliates", and are they dodgy?

Legitimate advisors do not have affiliates, other businesses they have advertising and referral arrangements with.  An advisor may know lawyers or CPAs or real estate agents who can help you with certain issues, but the advisor is not in any kind of pay-for-referral relationship with any of them.  There are many good reasons for this, but probably the biggest is that they are illegal.

Agora and the like have piles of affiliates because that allows cross-platform promotion and getting your pitch in front of more people.  And are these affiliates dodgy.  Let facts be placed before a candid world.  One claims campaigning against sexual harassment is a threat to men.  Another claims it has herbal cures for cancer and diabetes.  One argues should be able to carry firearms even if you've been found judicially incompetent.  And another one claims that Mexico is sending all those illegal immigrants across the border in a deliberate plan to undo the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and take back the southwestern US.  I'm not making any of this up.

If someone wants to be your financial advisor and flunks one of these tests, you probably ought to give them a pass.  If they flunk them all, well....

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

And a Little Real Estate

The report from Washington is that the real estate market there is cooling off, code for "The market is not as hot as a pulsar in the Sriracha Galaxy."  Inventories are actually accumulating.  Thurston County, where they keep Olympia and the capitol, is as hot as ever, though.  How can anyone afford to work in the state government?

Free Capitalist No Longer Free

OMG, they finally nailed Rick Koerber to the wall.  It ought to be amazing it took so long, but given Utah's track record in such cases, I guess the miracle is that the case was prosecuted at all (Note that it required bringing in an outside judge to finally make this fly.).  Now I hope the Tenth Circuit doesn't bollocks the inevitable appeal.

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Another HR How-Not-To Lesson

I've been focusing largely on real estate lately, so it's time to do a business management entry.  I was called in to provide some advice on this mess just last week.  The company in question has a pool of employees it brings in as needed for a certain type of work.  One employee hadn't been called in for awhile, so he called the company and was told he needed to come in to meet with them.  It then took the two bosses two weeks to get around to meeting with this guy.  At this meeting they took issue with his having missed one of the training days.  They took issue with his level of communication with them.  And they took issue with his actual work product.  Turns out, though, there were some issues with these issues.  I'll lay them out below as lessons.

Lesson One: If you are going to accuse someone of not communicating, you had better have looked at their communications.  The employee had emailed the bosses he would not be available for that training day.  The company's response was that he had responded to the wrong email, so they did not know what he meant by "I am not available the following days."

Lesson Two: If you are going to accuse someone of not asking questions to get clarification, you had better have asked some questions yourself.  The email in Lesson One was actually pretty clear.  The company never followed up on it to ask what the employee meant.  The employee was apparently supposed to figure out on his own that the company was confused.

Lesson Three: Do not treat informal communications away from the office as if they were formal communications made in the office.  The employee and one of the bosses ran into each other at the grocery store.  The employee mentioned in passing that he was going to miss one of the training days.  The boss claimed he told the employee to call the other boss about it.  The employee claimed he never heard any such thing.  The boss never followed up with an email to this effect, either to the employee or to the other boss.

Lesson Four: If you are going to accuse someone of violating a policy, there had better be a policy.  The company claimed the employee had not followed policy concerning communication.  There was no evidence such a policy existed.

Lesson Five: If you are going to accuse someone of shoddy work, you had better not have already signed off on it.  The company claimed some portion of his work was unsatisfactory.  There were in fact some items that had been returned to him for revision (I won't go into the inadequacies of the bosses' notes seeking revisions, but trust me, they weren't good.).  Those revisions had been made, and the company had accepted them.  Now the company wanted to renege on the acceptance as part of disciplining the employee.

So to recap: 1) The company was told the employee would miss the training day, but the company's communications are so pigeonholed that a clear statement sent to the RIGHT PEOPLE will be ignored and not considered to be communication; 2) the company tried to cover its lack of communication by having a boss tell the employee in a grocery store aisle that the employee needed to call, a communication the employee denies receiving and the company has no follow-up verification of having made; 3) there was no policy violation because there is no policy; and 4) work that had been acceptable was retroactively deemed unacceptable to support the current discipline.

And now the killer.

Lesson Six: If you have a problem with an employee's performance, do NOT wait for the employee to contact you to straighten it out (and do not stall for an additional two weeks after that).  Even if everything the company said were true (which it obviously was not), the employee should not have had to sit around wondering what was going on and finally call in on his own.  That is called Passive-Aggressive Management.  If it's your management style, you shouldn't be a manager, and you probably won't be for long.  If you're an owner and pulling these stunts, I guarantee you're driving away all the best people.  Soon your competition will have all the good ones (Maybe that's why Passive-Aggressive Managers congregate in government: no competitors.), and you'll be left with what's left.  And I shouldn't need to tell you where that leads.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Q2 GDP

And then there is the latest GDP report, showing growth of over 4%.  Trump of course crowed about how fantastic the figures are and how they will keep going up.  I can only hope that on some level he realizes that simply isn't true.  The markets reacted with a predictable "Meh" and slid some, probably for the wrong reasons, including that this wasn't as high as projected.  Personally, I think it's bilge.

"Why?" you ask.  Well, first, GDP really isn't a terribly good measure of economic health, especially in times like these where wealth is accumulating at the extreme top end of the scale.  99% of the population could be living like Bronze Age goatherders, but so long as the top 1% is making it and spending it, GDP says the economy is great.  Let's put it this way: If the economy is doing so well, where is the job growth, where is the wage growth.  They simply aren't happening.

Second, Q2 figures are probably gamed, even more than usual.  The "tax reform" refunds arrived, and while the overwhelming majority of people didn't receive enough extra to matter (My taxes actually went up, thank you very much.), the folks on top received piles, which they spent, thus increasing GDP.  Also, everyone knew tariff wars were coming with Q3, so they packed as much buying and selling as possible in Q2 to avoid them.  Finally, everyone knew the Fed would continue to hike interest rates in Q3, so everyone got their financing and cut their deal in Q2.

In other words, expect Q3 GDP to drop, probably be quite a bit.

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Housing Market Slowdown

As I wrote in my previous post, rental housing is tight because people can't afford to buy.  The pundits are finally waking up to the fact that the housing market is slowing down and so the merry-go-round is about to stop again.  As a preliminary note, the only reason the housing market has been increasing is because a lot of hot, commercial money has been jumping in to snap up tons of houses for potential rentals or tear-down redevelopment; owner-occupied housing, which creates the community stability and social benefits we traditionally look for from this market, has not been making the difference.

The pundits talk about rising prices and rising interest rates forcing people out of the market, but they are ignoring, perhaps deliberately, the elephant in the room.  Too many people lack the economic stability to make such a long-term purchase.  Their income hasn't been steady for the last several years (if ever), they don't know how steady it will be over the next five years (It probably won't be.), and they don't even know if they'll be here for the next five years (probably not).  People can't buy, and even if they can, they don't have a good reason to.

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Vacancy Rates

Recently saw the Q2 commercial vacancy rates for Salt Lake County, broken down as residential, office, retail, manufacturing, and warehouse.  It looked like a very rosy picture, with low vacancy rates all around.  Personally, I think they smell.  Like mackerel in the moonlight, they shine and stink.  Manufacturing and warehouse are low because they're being converted into the other areas and aren't being replaced.  Multifamily residential is low because people can't afford to buy.  As for office, there are thousands of square feet that are leased but are currently unoccupied (ostensibly because the lessee needs room for expansion, but we'll see how much of that happens) or are being used for on-site storage.  As for the retail numbers, someone is lying.  They pass neither the eyeball test nor the smell test.  Drive around the valley and look at the empty space.  Doesn't matter what kind of retail it is, the vacancy rates are high.  Anybody who thinks otherwise is living in a cave.  It's like just about every other bit of news about our "booming" economy: It only works by being highly selective with the data and then not examining the analysis very much.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

31 October 1941

Want to do something constructive for Halloween and study something really scary?  Look into the sinking of the US destroyer Reuben James, sunk while escorting a merchant convoy to the UK.  And also remember that the merchant and Navy sailors who faced all this before the US finally got into the war weren't getting combat benefits (and to this day aren't eligible for membership in the American Legion).  So listen to the song (Guthrie, Weavers, Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, whatever), read up, and learn.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sears Drops the Other Shoe

Didn't have to wait long for this.  As I predicted, Sears is shutting down the Ivy place K-Mart.  Another big dead space in the middle of things.  Retail is truly a mess, and that means that, in spite of all the Class A office space being slapped up to house the 1%'s service industries (law firms, CPAs, investment houses, etc.), the economy is hollowing out.  What to do?  Good question given that we are marching in the exact opposite direction from anything that could solve any of this.  If I were a bright boy at Goldman Sachs, though, I would be creating funding vehicles for redeveloping these parcels.  Into what?  I have no idea.  Caviar shops and Rolls Royce dealerships.  You have to shift the properties to the people who are still buying.  Because what's obvious is that the people these properties were targeting aren't buying anymore.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

But Retail's Fine, Just Read Forbes

So in spite of the original notice that indicated it would stay open, the Radio Shack at 700 South and State here in SLC is closing (i.e. it's worse than they originally announced).  2017 retail bankruptcies already outnumber 2016.  The distressed retailer list is growing rapidly.  But Forbes thinks things are fine.  There are good reasons for this.  First, Paula Rosenblum is the sort of member of my age group that gives my age group a bad name.  The way she poo-poos the effect of on-line shopping is both condescending and absurd.  A nonscientific sampling consisting of my four kids finds a unanimous preference for shopping online, and one of them is in retail.  Nonscientific, but they're also among the least tech-oriented of their peers.  That's Trouble with a capital T, and Forbes gets a capital F for ignoring it.  Then Rosenblum doubles down with all the glorious things retailers are doing to bring shoppers back, including the mall redesigns.  Earth to Paula: First tell me how this fits the financing models for these enterprises (It doesn't.), then tell me how it gets past the fact that it is aimed at a clientele that is dying (It doesn't.).

There is an even bigger reason Forbes is taking this position: Steve Forbes is taking this position.  Why?  Well, he's part of that dying off generation that thinks mall shopping is cool (or in his case that sending a servant to do mall shopping for you is cool).  But also, he can't see any of it.  As fewer people are able to consume, retail becomes increasingly dominated by custom-made products sold in controlled-access locations or even privately.  This is the world Steve Forbes knows, it's working just fine for him, and so no problem.  But if you consider dead real estate and vanishing jobs a problem, then you might have to differ with him.  I do.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

So How Fragile IS the Economy?

Macy's in Holladay is finally closing.  Congratulations, Holladay, you've finished the job of turning a regional mall into a cow pasture.  For those of you keeping score, Macy's is also closing the Layton Hills store and the stores at the Three Rivers Mall in Kelso and the Everett Mall.  Sixty-eight stores, over 10,000 jobs.  Lowe's is chopping 2,400 full-time employees in effort to cut costs by using more part-time workers, in the further Walmartification of the US job market.  The Limited has filed Chapter 11, but it isn't reorganizing, it's liquidating.  American Apparel is gone, along with its 110 stores.  Albertsons is shutting down stores all over the territory.  Sears is closing the Vernal, Layton, and Tacoma K-Marts and the Alderwood Mall Sears (I'm waiting for the K-Mart next to Ivy Place to go.).  And in local tech news, Endurance International Group, which went public in 2013 and is still trading below the IPO price, is closing its Bluehost business in Orem (I wonder if Governor Available is going to mention that while bragging about all the jobs he's brought in.).

These aren't just lost jobs.  They're a sign that people aren't buying because they can't buy.  And as more people lose their jobs, more people can't buy.  That's called "spinning in."

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If Small Business is the Backbone of the Economy...

...the economy is an invertebrate.  I know, I know, small business owners are the scrappy folks who keep it all going.  And most of my clients are small businesses.  And I'm a small business.  But....

Too many small businesses have no clue how things work (as I've noted several times, such as here and here).  And they also tend to be clueless on just how badly the deck is stacked against them (such as our glorious, bad check statute, which I discussed here).  But I am now witnessing Transatlantic delusion.

First, the UK is in the throes of Brexit.  A recent study of small businesses indicates that a plurality exporters and a majority of importers believe Brexit will have no effect on them.  Wow.  Just wow.  Pulling out of a free trade zone and putting a large hole in your financial industry isn't going to leave a dent.  That isn't optimism, that's insanity.  Meanwhile on this side of the pond, small businesses are expecting Trump to stabilize things for them.  Yeah.  Uh, no.  Trump is stirring the pot into a hurricane, and he's doing it for the greater glory of the big boys.  That includes ACA repeal, which frankly was a big win for small businesses.  If that goes, good look offering your employees a benefit package of any kind, let alone one that can match the bigs.  And if you can't attract talent, where are you?  Going dark, that's where.

So keep ignoring reality, small business owners.  It is sort of a requirement for club membership.  Just don't be shocked and whiny if reality doesn't ignore you and bites you in the backside.

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