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Welcome to Kansas, the bastion of how not to run a state, but claim things are just dandy.  I noted in a prior blog that Kansas has no reserves.  And apparently a $350 million deficit in 2016, a continuing trend for a number of years now.  And bigger deficits to come.  Kansas is the poster child of why cutting taxes a lot does not work.

How did they get here?  The state governor and legislature decided that cutting taxes spurs economic growth.  So if you cut a lot of taxes, you get lots of growth. They cite the Laffer curve, a  totally discredited economic tool drawn on the back of a napkin  by Arthur Laffer at a 1974 dinner to argue why Gerald Ford should not raise taxes.  On the face of it it makes no sense but that has not stopped supply side politicians from using it for nearly 40 years  to cut taxes.  The problem, it is wrong.

Cutting taxes does not spur enough economic growth to make up for the loss in taxes when you go down the Kansas role.  If you s cut them too much, it is really hard to raise them if you run short.  The result is that  economic growth in most of Kansas will be stunted for years due to the lack of investment in Kansans.  Now you would think that Kansans would be up in arms about the poor stewardship by elected officials. But no.  See if you get constant bad news, just stop reporting revenues and deficits.  No news is good news right?  Welcome to Kansas!

http://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-kansas-connecticut-budget-news.html

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IMG_7385One of the issues I always include in rate studies is a comparison of water rates with other basic services.  Water always comes in at the bottom.  But that works when everyone has access and uses those services.  Several years ago a study indicated that cable tv was in 87-91 % of home.  At the time I was one of the missing percentage, so I thought it was interesting.  However, post the 2008 recession, and in certain communities, this may be a misplace comparison.  A recent study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman notes that the top 0.1% have assets that are worth the same as the bottom 90% of the population!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Occupy Wall Street had it wrong.  It’s not the 1% it is the 0.1%.  This is what things were like in the 1920s, just before the Great Depression.  The picture improved after the implementation of tax policies (the top tax rate until 1964 was 90% – yes you read that right – 90%).  Then the tax rate was slowly reduced to deal with inflation.  The picture continued to improve until supply side economics was introduced in the early 1980s when the disparity started to rise again (see their figure below), tripling since the late 1970s (you recall the idea was give wealthy people more money and they would invest it in jobs that would increase employment opportunities and good jobs for all, or something like that).  Supply side economics did not/does not work (jobs went overseas), and easy credit borrowing and education costs have contributed to the loss of asset value for the middle class as they strove to meet job skills requirements for better jobs.  In addition wages have stagnated or fallen while the 0.1% has seen their incomes rise.  The problem has been exacerbated since 2008 as they report no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor.  So going back to my first observation – what gets cut from their budget, especially the poor and those of fixed pensions?  Food?  Medicine?  Health care?  My buddy Mario (86 year old), still works because he can’t pay his bills on social security.  And he does not live extravagantly.  So do they forego cable and cell phones?  If so the comparison to these costs in rate studies does not comport any longer.  It places at risk people more at risk.  And since, rural communities have a lower income and education rate than urban areas, how much more at risk are they?  This is sure to prove more interesting in the coming years.  Hopefully with some tools we are developing, these smaller communities can be helped toward financial and asset sustainability.  But it may require some tough decisions today.

Income percent

 


My cousin  once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did.  Kind of an amusing thought.  In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were.  Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton.  The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession.  Reagan’s first term was flat.  We all know about George H.W. Bush.  Interesting thoughts.  Not so good.  So what about the last 8 years?   But is raises a more interesting issue.  So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years.  They have been difficult.   The economy responded slowly.  Wages did not rebound quickly.  But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?

The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.

Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times:  (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/yes-he-did/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body).  Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point.  Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat.  So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were?  And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs?  Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog?  Can we modernize?  Can we create “smarter networks?”  Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees?  Can we improve/update equipment?  All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.

Krugman Income percent

 


The true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out. Making useful assumptions about increases in demands, prices, inflation rates etc. are key to useful projections and long-term sustainability. Building too much or too little capacity for example can have disastrous consequences (to the ratepayers on the former, to the local economy for the latter).

Getting funding relies on economic strength, a problem of you are in a depressed area (Detroit) or a boom that could crash at any time (North Dakota).  P3 opportunities are available for cash strapped communities but they come with a cost.  Risk must be allocated fairly – the private community will not take on too much risk without increasing costs significantly. Loss of control is one of those risk conversion issues.  Extensive planning and feasibility analyses should be expected – far more scrutiny than most utilities are used to.  The economic strength of the community is important to private investors.

In a prior blog we talked about the boom towns of North Dakota.  Things were booming in 2013 but the downturn in oil prices may get ugly.  The need for more fracking wells may have decreased (at least temporarily) and the decrease in the oil and gas costs has cut into local revenues, so is this is the time to keep planning for the boom?  South Florida did this in the early 2000s – and well, that real estate boom put quite a dent in the economy and population estimates for 2020 and 2030.  The balloon popped and so did the economy.  South Florida had the resiliency to bounce back because of weather and proximity to South America.  We have seen the result to an industrial economy – where a community relies on industry, well industry can be fickle.  Ask Detroit.  Or Cleveland.  Or any number of other Rust Belt cities.  Now they have infrastructure, but much of it is underused.
So while the Plains states plan for the boom, the boom has settled in some places. Already the oil and gas industry has shed 100,000 jobs (many high salary).  Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma are facing financial challenges in 2015 due to funding losses.  Alaska is dipping into reserves.  But that doesn’t mean the results of the 2010-2014 boom are not continuing, or at least portions of them.  Frack water continues to be discharged to local wastewater systems, but the revenues to pay for the needed upgrades is lacking.  Effluent limits for nitrogen and TOC for some rivers have decreased as a result of constant increased loading to the streams (more flow increases total loads, so if flows remain the same, the concentrations must decrease to maintain total loading).  The costs to reduce ammonia, for example from 10 mg/l to 2 or 3 mg/L can be $1-2/1000 gallon – over 50% or more of the current cost for treatment.

So is it a surprise that some communities fight the boom times?  Booms create disruption and uncertainly, and a need for technology (and costs).  Maybe stability does matter, as it can contain costs and treatment requirements.  However the boom can help communities in financial distress.  Detroit and Flint would love a boom – both have the infrastructure in place to support it as opposed to rural communities in the Plains.  But that’s is a key – they already HAVE the infrastructure in place.  The Plains, well, do not.

There is a lot of older, underutilized infrastructure out there.  Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Philadelphia are among the older industrial cities that have stable populations – people that live there most of their lives, have a trained and educated workforce, and normally have lots of water and infrastructure, and lots of potential employees, all of which are underutilized and at risk due to economic losses. But the booms rarely go to older cities. How that is?  Is this a leadership issue?  Convenience?  Quick profits?  And how long will the boom last?  Is it a matter of lack of understanding or regulations that creates the boom?  A combination of factors?  A better PR program?

Remember we all play defense.  Industry does not.  Industry plays offense all the time.  The private sector mode is play offense.  Get the message out.  Frame the message.  Win the game.  Is winning the game at any cost the right answer?  For boomers it is.  What about the rest of us?


Once upon a time, people worked until they died.  But the longer people lived, the more infirmities impacted older people, and the concept of stopping work came into play.  So these folks labored all their lives, put some money away in a safe place, like a bank, where someone else would watch over an manage their money until they needed it.  Then one day, they found out that the banks have gambled and lost on real estate, and their money was gone.  There was no government to bail anyone out.  So the people had to try to go back to work, became beggars and destitute or died.  The government thought this was unfair to those older folks who had worked so hard, but through absolutely no fault of their own, had lost everything.  So the government decided that it would “tax” people a portion of their income, and put it into a retirement system.  People could retire at 65, and of course they were only expected to live another r3 or 4 years.  There were 16 people laying in for every person taking out.  And the government told the banks that they could not gamble with people’s hard earned savings, passed legislation and created an insurance pool to backstop losses by criminal or unethical activity.  All was good and the people were happy.

As time went on some things changed.  For one, people lived more than 3 or 4 years.  The population retirees increased, and the ratio dropped to 1:10 and then to 1:6 ration of retirees:workers, but the “tax” did not go up, but investments were made that increased the pool.  It was called good management.  The government also encouraged people to save money by deferring taxes, which they did, and the banks used it to make money.  All good as long as the investors gambled well.  They gambled so well, they were able to talk the government into undoing the anti-gambling rules from the past, so their pool to invest was twice as much.  And the markets grew and the portfolios grew and the people were happy.

And then it came to pass that the banks again gambled on real estates, and created complicated investment tools to hide the risk, but the risk was exposed and half the money was gone overnight.  And the retired were wondering about jobs again.  But there were no jobs.  And the employed now had fewer jobs.  So less people paid into the system.  And the people were sad.  And mad because they thought they were being protected from the gambling of the past.  They did not understand.

And the government could supply no answers because they had changed the rules and they knew the people would be unhappy, so the government felt there was no choice, so they borrowed money, and bailed out the banks.  And some people were happy.  And some people were concerned about all that debt.  And some people wondered why it was that history could repeat itself and put society at risk.  And some people asked why people who did bad things were not punished.

And none of these questions has been answered.  Good thing that these fairy tales don’t depict anything real right?


Some recent reading led me to the following items that seem to crop up when municipalities have fiscal problems that are not otherwise created by the economy or federal or state government decisions:

Assuming high returns of retained earnings (Orange County, CA)

  • Pension systems that are underfunded (Portland OR, and others)
  • Lack of appropriate financial advisors (many)
  • Assuming growth will be exponential
  • Failure to address deterioration of infrastructure (many)
  • Getting involved in complicated credit swaps and revenues tools involving borrowing (Detroit).
  • Declining use by customers that are economically stressed (many)

Food for thought… or caution.


A Ponzi scheme is an illegal program whereby investors are promised big return son investments in a short period of time, and where the underlying basis for this return is deliberately mis-stated.  We continually find people who perpetrate Ponzi schemes and when they are finally caught, they get put in jail.  For those unsure, a Ponzi scheme is defined as a scheme where the scheme operator says they will pay a high return to its investors from their original investment, but instead uses money from new capital paid to the operator by new investors rather than from profit earned by the operator.  Hence it is a flow through of money from people putting money in to people who are getting out.  To get returns on the investments for the earlier investors, the pool of new people must increase with time, so that there are always more people paying in that there were previously.  It that does not occur, then we have a problem.

What is a retirement system?  A retirement system is a form of deferred compensation used to attract and keep workers, by deferring a portion of their pay 10, 20 30 or 40 years from now.  It is part of the compensation to the employee.  With a retirement system, people pay into a program, where their money is invested.  A retirement system tends to rely on the fact that the number of people paying in increases exponentially so that the actual invested dollars are never touched, instead the new proceeds exceed the monies paid out.  For a pension, plan it assumes your invested dollars remain invested and profitable, and that the revenues from the new people in the system, exceed the monies paid to retirees.  What is the difference?  Well, the retirement system actually supposedly has assets while Ponzi scheme does not.  Otherwise, the systems work similarly – dollars paid in generally go out to others, and there is an assumption that the number or payees increases exponentially (a percentage every year).

So what happens to a pension plan when the number of employees decreases from 6.7 million to 4.4 million over 40 years?  Would you expect there to be a pension plan problem?  And if so why?  And who is at fault?  That is exactly what has happened to federal government employees since 1967.  And many states have seen reductions in the last 20 years as well.  So it is any wonder why these pension systems might be at risk?  The push to privatize services ensures that the basic assumption that the number of payees in a pension plan increases exponentially will be violated, which makes the pension plan vulnerable.  And ho is at fault.  I would suggest the people pushing privatization, who look only at short term consequences as opposed to long-term impacts.  Perhaps this needs to be part of any such discussion going forward.  Just a thought…

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