Got ’em by the donors

So… a strange (but relevant!) digression. All the chitter-chatter about the former president not being able to get good legal advice, I mean, the absurdity of that sentence alone.

Anyway, some possible reasons why: 1) he lies constantly, 2) he thinks he’s smarter than everyone – meaning he will get you in real legal trouble if you’re on the record representing him and 3) most important, you’ll get stiffed. So why would any attorney with federal court trial experience put their reputation on the line for any of that? The premise is self-refuting. And here’s where the green gets truly, unfortunately, meta.

He’s raising money on all this legal trouble he’s in – stolen docs, destroyed evidence, obstructing justice… and though it looks like its political fundraising, guess again. Winred is not ActBlue. The RNC is raising money from the gullible to pay his legal bills, causing them to also pull out of media buys for weak candidates, which is all fine with me, sure. But let’s call it what it is: green from the green to protect a racket of degenerate hucksterism.

Wasn’t it weird how fast the feds returned his passports? I mean, go already!

Recessions fears 1, climate concerns 0

If you’re scoring at home, (and who’s not?) getting off the buying merry go round is proving to be incredibly difficult – even with ever-present reminders of plague, drought, and the cost of everything cross-referenced with the need to exercise and eat better, the joys of being outdoors and seeing people again. It’s all so confusing, especially when the answers are RIGHT there. You’re so close, Brigette:

As gas and food prices climb, Brigette Engler, an artist based in New York City, said she’s driving to her second home upstate less often and cutting back on eating out.

“Twenty dollars seems extravagant at this point for lunch,” she said.

And before you start, no one mentioned anything about anything being easy. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be intentionally more difficult to understand, i.e., predicated on a growing economy and not spooking ‘investor confidence.’ JFC… what does any of that even mean? Please subscribe to my newsletter, Which Word to Italicize:

How people spend their money is shifting as the economy slows and inflation pushes prices higher everywhere including gas stations, grocery stores and luxury retail shops. The housing market, for example, is already feeling the pinch. Other industries have long been considered recession proof and may even be enjoying a bump as people start going out again after hunkering down during the pandemic.

Still, shoppers everywhere are feeling pressured. In May, an inflation metric that tracks prices on a wide range of goods and services jumped 8.6% from a year ago, the biggest jump since 1981. Consumers’ optimism about their finances and the overall economy sentiment fell to 50.2% in June, its lowest recorded level, according to the University of Michigan’s monthly index.

That’s from the same article and I don’t mean to single out CNBC. Just listen Marketplace or any business/economic news and the dissonance is a cacophony (Ed. ?). Unemployment is bad, but a tight labor market rattles the Dow. Prices at the pump have drivers worried about filling up, but what’s the real price of fuel? Hint: Europeans already know. Sure there’s a macro-micro disconnect. But the larger disconnect is the one we keep shoring up: individual actions of millions, propped up and egged on by the corporate and government altars to the status quo, heating up the planet beyond what it can support.

Whether or not we need more reminders of the need to change how we live, more are on the way.

Image: Merry-Go-Round Photograph by Jurgen Lorenzen

Defeating the porpoises, an ongoing series

At the intersection of global climate issues and all things monetary, well, it can be difficult to decide which word to italicize anymore:

The U.S.-based crypto exchange Kraken has announced that, despite the layoffs and hiring freezes among its competitors in the ongoing “crypto winter”, they intend to keep hiring aggressively. They also took the opportunity to announce that they “believe bear markets are fantastic at weeding out the applicants chasing hype from the true believers in our mission”, and that they had “taken this opportunity to align our internal culture around a set of shared values”. They also make it clear that anyone who disagree with the changes can GTFO: “In commitment to these values, we also expanded our permanent benefits program to make moving on a bit easier for anyone who feels it’s time for the next chapter in their career.”

That’s from Molly White’s terrific and wonderfully-named website and she’s is no danger of running out of content anytime soon. Because lots of everyones out there think all the other everyones are the suckers, or they’re not sure who is. But whatever, the sucker rule still applies.

And at the same time, it’s more than that. When the last necessary thing was another distraction from the burning and belching, from the fanning, the rising and the storming, everyones are out here convincing themselves to believe in yet another free ride. Yes, it would be great if blockchain ‘tech’ guaranteed that you could trust this invisible money (cf. the italics dilemma). But that’s not how people work. What people do is find the sucker, and adjust for scale, malheureusement.

Image via porpoisesdotorg, natch.

Wait and see

Sort of a corollary of f*ck around and find out. But.. good to see Biden getting serious about supporting Ukraine. That’s a big number and it needs to be. On verra, as they say.

The ‘let’s see if this sorts itself out’ attitude from some western countries – albeit, right now fewer by the day – mirrors the general tendency of the same countries to do very little about climate change. All the while:

Rising seas have long been a threat to coastal cities. New research suggests that cities—particularly in Asia—are sinking as well, compounding the risks of frequent and severe flooding.

In Karachi, land is sinking five times as fast as the sea level is rising, according to the study published this month in Geophysical Research Letters. Manila and Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, are sinking at 10 times the rate of the rising waters.

In China’s Tianjin, a coastal city about 150 kilometers southeast of Beijing, the ground is giving way at 20 times that speed.

In those four cities alone, the phenomenon could affect roughly 59 million residents.

The study, which used satellite data to analyze 99 cities around the world from 2015 to 2020, points to groundwater extraction related to rapid urbanization and population growth, oil and gas production, and construction.

The next life you save just might be your own.

The socialization of capitalism

New York Magazine takes us on a tour of what lays beyond, after the capitalism runs out. That may sound hippie and/or conspiratorial, but facts is facts and the entire game has changed:

Making matters even weirder, contemporary capitalism’s dominant shareholders have no direct interest in the success or failure of the firms they own. All returns on their holdings get passed down the investment chain to their clients — households, governments, and corporations. Asset managers make their money off of their clients’ fees, not their firms’ returns. This diagram may make the hydraulics of the system more legible:

[cool graphic]

Of course, an asset manager that delivered consistently poor returns would attract few clients. And asset managers’ fees are calculated as a percentage of the current value of their clients’ assets. Nevertheless, add a fee-based business model to asset managers’ universal portfolios, and their interest in the performance of any individual firm they own becomes extraordinarily attenuated — even when they are the single largest shareholder of that firm (which is very often the case)!

This is not how capitalism is supposed to work in theory. And it isn’t how corporate governance has ever before worked in practice. To the political economist Benjamin Braun, the contemporary structure of corporate ownership is so novel and consequential as to mark a new era in economic history, the age of “asset-manager capitalism.”

Braun’s papers on this subject are fascinating, and nerds will want to read them in full. Mere dorks, however, may be content to consider the following four ways the rise of asset managers challenges conventional wisdom about how capitalism functions — and how it might be changed.

Cool graphic and the rest at the link. Removing market competition from the equation renders many of the other legacy levers moot. Even the ESG stratagem takes on a different tenor – what does promoting efficiency even mean when the owners of the means of production no longer prevail – when/if we default (curious wording) to a dirigiste model. They, ESG pressure campaigns may become more effective. Because frankly, christian soldiers, that’s what they’re talking about.

Of Yachts and Fossils

Who ever knew it, but seizing yachts is very popular! And despite the reporting that will tell you that they are impossible to re-sell, as if that makes the seizures moot, taking the oligarchs’ prized possessions scratches a weird itch in the afflicted that actually bothers the comfortable if you know what I mean and I think you do. These are ridiculous manifestations of not only conspicuous consumption, but also conspicuous waste. It also beggars belief that no useful purposes can be devised for these vessels.

Anyway, to the broader situation of Russia, and trying to strangle their economy without strangling the world economy – unless we de-fossilize our energy sources, the former will always be the latter:

This is a coherent platform for left-of-center parties across the globe: a law-and-order crackdown on international kleptocracy, and mass electrification and renewable energy to weaken the repressive and despotic petrostates. It is not a quick fix (though confiscatory wealth taxes ought to work quickly enough), and it is perhaps not as viscerally satisfying to our bloodthirsty pundit class as more fighters and missiles. But in the medium term the “solution” to the “problem” of Russian aggression is not trying to surgically crash their economy while protecting ours (an impossible tightrope to walk so long as high-income nations fail to quit fossil fuels). It may be impossible now to use Apple Pay to ride the Moscow Metro—it may even be impossible, temporarily, for particular Russian-born billionaires to anonymously purchase London pieds-à-terre—but it is still very easy to take the money you made selling natural gas to Berlin and ask a lawyer in New York to explain how to hide it it in South Dakota. The only sensible Russia policy is to make it unprofitable to be the sort of state it is. This approach would also have the side benefit of improving the sorts of states all of us reside in, and perhaps even of saving human civilization. Defeating Russia, by necessity, requires defeating fossil capital.

via.

Image: Andrey Melnichenko’s SY A sailing yacht that at least looks like a sail boat.

Ruffling the kleptocracy

In other news – just started a subscription to the FT and wow, there ARE other stories out there. Boring, significant. Anyway, the U.S. is about to ban anonymous shell companies:

The Biden administration’s focus on corruption and money laundering may so far have attracted less notice than its other big policy decisions. But it is the most meaningful manifestation of the US president’s argument that making the economy work for ordinary Americans is intimately connected to US national security and foreign policy interests.

There are many reasons to cheer this turn in policy. First, it is an all-too-rare example of relative bipartisanship in a deeply polarised country. Days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Corporate Transparency Act was passed by overwhelming majorities of the US Congress as part of the annual defence spending authorisation bill. This law will, when implemented, in effect ban anonymous shell companies in the US — a favoured conduit for the world’s corrupt to launder dirty money, as Yellen referred to in her remarks.

Second, the administration means it seriously. The Treasury has issued an implementation rule for the shell company ban. Too often, in the US or elsewhere, good laws on paper have been dead letters in practice, because of loopholes or a failure to put enough resources and political support behind enforcement. This time looks different.

So weird, and not to get/stay meta all the time, but this story even hits the mythical ‘bipartisan’ note somehow, and yet still never rises to the level of the local news. Sure, it was drowned out by a coup attempt, but as the article points out, corrupted government institutions are the very things that abet anti-democratic movements. So, striking back at corruption also strikes a blow in support of liberal democracy. Sounds so quaint, but that’s where we are.

Image: Nicobar spindle shell, typically not itself a threat to democracy.

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.

Theories about ESG investing

This is some serious inside baseball. But it IS October:

If your basic theory of ESG investing is “we will avoid bad-ESG stocks in order to drive up the cost of capital of bad-ESG things,” it seems to be working:

Years of awful returns and pressure from clients to exit from the oil-and-gas business have left fewer and smaller firms able to take advantage of rising prices and help boost production. The unwillingness of some banks to make energy loans has compounded the challenges to boosting energy supplies.

Those left are moving to increase production, but they are relatively small players who won’t be able to make a significant impact on output. Investors are steering capital away from fossil fuels and toward companies that rank high in environmental, social and governance, or ESG, measures.

“Oil-and-gas has seen the worst returns of any sector over the past five years; the returns are volatile and investors feel ESG pressures,” says Wil VanLoh, who runs Quantum Energy Partners, which manages $18 billion, making it one of the few remaining big energy private-equity funds. “There’s been a huge retreat in available capital.”

That’s from Matt Levine’s Bloomberg daily newsletter, talking game about the game. But the idea that ESG investing is maturing, as he says, is an interesting one. If companies and the courts are no longer going to just line up on the side of fiduciary responsibilities as a way to protect shareholders – and hence, the companies that may continue to pollute and spew for profit – that’s at least a change.

Image: Abraham Lincoln: Baseball Theme Currier & Ives Cartoon, 1860.

Swarms at the trough

The once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair and rebuild infrastructure across the country is also a once-in-a-not-soon-enough siren call to private equity to interrupt, disrupt and corrupt:

Legislation with the size and scope of the $4 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda is like a Bat-Signal for lobbyists, urging them to swarm Capitol Hill without delay. Literally thousands of companies, organizations, and trade groups have lobbied on one or more of the bills in this package. But one industry’s representatives keep showing up over and over again, whether in formal lobbying sessions in Congress or more informal meetings: private equity.

“At every point, private equity lines up at the trough,” said one observer close to the discussions. “There’s just somebody in every fucking meeting.”

Private equity lobbyists have multiple interests in the bills being discussed. They obviously want to keep any tax increases away from their industries, and successfully fought to keep tax hikes out of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is slated for a House vote on September 27. Those tax hikes got shifted to the reconciliation package known in Washington as the Build Back Better Act, and private equity has kept up the pressure there.

But the industry has another reason to be involved in the reconciliation bill. The blueprint includes hundreds of billions of dollars in investments to expand home and community-based services for elderly and disabled people under Medicaid (initially set at $400 billion over ten years), and to provide subsidies for high-quality child care programs (set at $225 billion). Private equity happens to be deeply invested in both of these industries, with dozens of home care and child care companies in their portfolios.

So, people should just be aware. Like accounting gimmicks from the political opposition and in the media that will make $3.5T over ten years sound like too much in an +$20T per year country (narrator: it’s Not), also be advised about all the beaks dipping toward the puddle as it gets sliced and diced. Let’s not get distracted about who is doing what – or why they might be whining about it.

Like we say, a country that can drop a small SUV on Mars from a helicopter and watch it drive around in real time can afford to fix any problem – except where stupidity and corruption won’t allow it.