Posts tagged ‘California’

California…This Bud’s for You

I guess it’s time for Californians to dust off their bongs and break out the rolling papers because Proposition 19, the proposal to legalize personal marijuana consumption for adults in the Golden State, is coming up for vote next month. Judging by recent polls, the proposition is gaining steam…or smoke. 

Results show that 52% of voters are backing the proposition versus 41% opposed and 7% undecided. In fact, the data shows Californians are supporting ganja more than they are backing the state Senatorial and Gubernatorial candidates (Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Carly Fiorina, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman).

Proponents are fiercely battling the opposition in the remaining weeks before the big vote. Given all the controversy, I wouldn’t be surprised if pro-pot advocacy groups enlisted renowned rapper Snoop Dogg as a paid spokesman to support the cause. I can hear Snoop now, “Vote yes on ‘pot,’ but remember friends don’t let friends drive doped.” Alternatively, I’m sure Altria Group (MO), maker of the famous Marlboro branded cigarettes, wouldn’t mind getting into the profitable cannabis business. They could even hire ex-President Clinton, who could admit he “inhaled…and enjoyed it,” while consuming some cannabis legally in California.

Would Snoop and Bill Say Yes to Legalized Marijuana?

The Budding of Prop. 19

What was the genesis of Proposition 19? Well, this isn’t the first time the wacky weed debate has actually been put to a vote in California. Almost four decades ago a similarly titled Proposition 19 initiative showed up on the ballot. Was it a coincidence the same number was used…perhaps? On the bright side, more mature protesters will not have to break the piggybank to buy new Proposition 19 buttons and T-shirts. This type of recycling gives new meaning to the word being “green.”

From a broader political policy perspective, marijuana consumption is no small problem. An estimated $113 billion of pot is sold each year nationally, with more than 10% of that attributed to California weed smokers. A whopping 15 million Americans have admitted to using pot within the last month, according to one survey. Of all the marijuana smoked, around fifty percent of the illegal bud is said to originate from foreign sources, most notably Mexico, which is dealing with deadly drug cartels that are killing innocent civilians by the thousands and threatening our borders. Proposition 19 cheerleaders are quick to point out that the legalization of cannabis would remove valuable money from foreign criminals’ pockets.

Legalizing and taxing cannabis has the potential of raising billions for the state of California. We all know about the sad state of fiscal affairs for California ($19 billion budget deficit) along with the dismal financial shape of neighboring states – an estimated $137 billion in deficits over fiscal 2011 and 2012  (see The Next Looming Bailout). Contributing to the deficits is the overcrowding of our jails and prisons.  Ever since the “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, which started in 1984, prison populations have quadrupled – many of the prisoners being non-violent pot smokers.  So, why not collect some cash from the millions that are already smoking pot illegally and help reduce our damaging deficits and free up space for more violent criminals?

Calling All Sin-Consuming Hypocrites

I understand the opposition to cannabis legalization, primarily based on concerns relating to public safety, workplace productivity, and potential losses in federal funding, but if certain people are opposed to Proposition 19, I sure hope they are up in arms over the numerous other legal (but sinful) products and services that permeate our daily lives. If pot is deemed harmful and illegal by society, then where are all the picketers protesting this long list of other sinfully legal products and services?

  • Casinos/Gambling
  • Cigarettes
  • Lotteries
  • Alcohol
  • Prostitution (Nevada)
  • Guns/Hunting
  • Ho Hos/Twinkies/Sodas (Fat Tax)

The potential safety issue surrounding an increase in stoned drivers is a real one. However, if we have managed to reduce drunk driving, with the help of severe penalties, over the last few decades, I’m fairly confident we can keep slothful, Domino’s pizza (DPZ) loving, pot-smokers under control.

There is no shortage of controversy surrounding this political hot-button issue, but drastic times call for drastic measures. You may be against the legalization of marijuana, but if Proposition 19 passes in California, you may want to go long Domino’s, and short Nike Inc. (NKE).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MO, DPZ, NKE, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 6, 2010 at 1:10 am 2 comments

Blushing Pinocchio – The Half Trillion Lie

When in doubt, or when in debt by half a trillion dollars, why not just make some crazy stuff up? This is the exact strategy California pension administrators used when implementing +50% increases in union member benefits earlier this decade.  The pension plans decided to take a break from reality and enter fantasyland when they projected the Dow Jones Industrial Average would hit 25,000 by the end of the decade and 28,000,000 by 2099, a forecast that would even make Pinocchio blush.

Dealing with the Problem

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his economic advisors attempted to take on the unions. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message. On the day the Governor struck a deal with the unions, California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) ordered a hike of $4 billion to the annual pension payments to its members.

The financial woes of California have been well documented as the state looks to lower its $19.1 billion deficit and an estimated one-half trillion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities – a level equal to about seven times the state’s total debt level. Even after multiple years of severe cuts, Schwarzenegger has had to resort to drastic measures, including his most recent desperate move to get some 200,000 state workers to accept slashes in pay to a $7.25/hour minimum wage.

Facing Reality

As I have discussed in the past, dealing with excessive debt requires a gut check. Cutting debt is similar to dieting – easy to understand, but difficult to execute (see my Debt Control article).

Whether Republican candidate Meg Whitman or Democratic candidate Jerry Brown wins the thankless position of California Governor, they will have to face the elephant in the room, but hopefully they will not resort to fuzzy accounting or predictions of Dow 28 million that would make even Pinocchio blush.

Read Full Related Article from Vincent Fernando at Business Insider

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

July 15, 2010 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

California Checking Under the Derivatives Hood

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Bill Lockyer, California’s State Treasurer, is in charge of driving “The Golden State’s” budget, but as he maneuvers the finances, he is hearing some strange knocks and pings as it relates to the pricing of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) on California debt obligations. CDSs, like virtually all derivatives, can either be used to speculate or hedge (see also, Einhorn CDS and Financial Engineering articles), so the existence of strange noises does not necessarily indicate foul play or problems that cannot be fixed.

Checking Under the Banks’ Hoods

 At the heart of the CDS markets lie the major investment banks, so that is where Lockyer is looking under the hood and requesting information on the role the banks are playing in the municipal bond CDS market. Specifically, Lockyer has sent letters requesting information from Bank of America – Merrill Lynch (BAC), Barclays, Citigroup (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM),and Morgan Stanley (MS). California pays the banks millions of dollars every year to market bonds on behalf of the state. The I-banks operate in some way like a car dealership – the state produces the cars (bonds) and the banks buy the bonds and resell them to buyers/investors.

The financial transaction doesn’t necessarily stop there, because the banks can further pad their profits by selling and making markets in credit default swaps. After the state issues bonds, speculators can then pay the banks to place bets on whether the cars (bonds) fail (default), or investors can also buy insurance from the banks in the form of swaps. As you can probably surmise, there is the potential for conflicts of interest between the state and the banks, which partly explains why Lockyer is conducting his due diligence.

California…the Next Greece or Kazakhstan?

As the housing market came crashing down, credit default swaps were at the center of financial institution collapses and the billions made by John Paulson (see also the Gutsiest Trade Ever). More recently, CDSs were cited as negative contributors to the Greek financial crisis. Lockyer tries to deflect California comparisons with Greece by stating the European country’s budget deficit is 13 times larger than California’s (as % of GDP) and the foreign country’s accumulated debt is 25 times larger on GDP basis as well (read California’s Debt Hole story).

Beyond making sure the profit rules of the game are not stacked against California, Lockyer wants to understand what he perceives as a mispricing in the default risk of California debt obligations. He is worried that the state’s borrowing costs on future bond issues could be artificially escalated because he says the credit default swaps “wrongly brand our bonds as a greater risk than those issued by such nations as Kazakhstan, Croatia, Bulgaria and Thailand.”

Clarity on these issues is important because the state is exploring the expansion into taxable municipal bonds. The government has been subsidizing taxable munis, termed Build America Bonds (BABs), to stimulate the economy and bring down borrowing costs for municipalities. According to Thomson Reuters, BABS accounted for approximately 26% of overall muni bond issuance ($25.8 billion) in the first quarter.

If California were a car, I’m not sure how much cash they would get for their clunker ($16 billion budget deficit), but I tip my hat to State Treasurer Lockyer for holding the investment banks’ feet to the fire. All investors and financial product consumers stand to benefit by looking under the hood of their financial institution and asking tough questions.

Read Full Financial Times Article on California CDS Market 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in BAC, C, GS, JPM, and MS or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

April 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm Leave a comment

Digging a Debt Hole

Little did I know when I signed up for a recent “distressed” debt summit (see previous article) that a federal official and state treasurer would be presenting as keynote speakers? After all, this conference was supposed to be catering to those professionals interested in high risk securities. Technically, California and the U.S. government are not classified as distressed yet, but nonetheless government heavy-hitters Matthew Rutherford (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Federal Finance at the U.S. Department of Treasury), and Bill Lockyer (Treasurer for the State of California) shared their perspectives on government debt and associated economic factors.

Why have government officials present at a distressed debt conference? After questioning a few organizers and attendees, I was relieved to discover the keynote speaker selections were made more as a function as a sign of challenging economic times, rather than to panic participants toward debt default expectations. As it turns out, the conference organizers packaged three separate conferences into one event – presumably for cost efficiencies (Distressed Investments Summit + Public Funds Summit + California Municipal Finance Conference).

The U.S. Treasury Balancing Act

Effectively operating as the country’s piggy bank, the Treasury has a very complex job of constantly filling the bank to meet our country’s expenditures. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Rutherford launched the event by speaking to domestic debt levels and deficits along with some the global economic trends impacting the U.S.

  • Task at Hand: Rutherford spoke to the Treasury’s three main goals as part of its debt management strategy, which includes: 1) Cash management (to pay the government bills); 2) Attempt to secure low cost financing; and 3) Promote efficient markets. With more than a few hundred auctions held each year, the Treasury manages an extremely difficult balancing act.
  • Debt Limit Increased: The recent $1.9 trillion ballooning in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion gives the Treasury some flexibility in meeting the country’s near-term funding needs. The Treasury expects to raise another $1.5 trillion in debt in 2010 (from $1.3 trillion in ’09) to fund our government initiatives, but that number is expected to decline to $1.0 – $1.1 trillion in 2011.
  • Funding Trillions at 0.16%: Thanks to abnormally low interest rates, an investor shift to short-term safety (liquidity), and a temporary rush to the dollar, the U.S. Treasury was able to finance their borrowing needs at a mere 16 basis points. Clearly, servicing the U.S.’ massive debt load at these extremely attractive rates is not sustainable forever, and the Treasury is doing its best to move out on the yield curve (extend auctions to lengthier maturities) to lock in lower rates and limit the government’s funding risk should short-term rates spike.
  • Chinese Demand Not Waning: Contrary to recent TIC (Treasury International Capital) data that showed Japan jumping to the #1 spot of U.S. treasury holders, Rutherford firmly asserted that China remains at the top by a significant margin of $140 billion, if you adjust certain appropriate benchmarks. He believes foreign ownership at over 50% (June 2009) remains healthy and steady despite our country’s fiscal problems.
  • TIPS Demand on the Rise: Appetite for Treasury Inflation Protection Securities is on the rise, therefore the Treasury has its eye on expanding its TIP offerings into longer maturities, just last week they handled their first 3-year TIPS auction.

There is no “CA” in Greece

State of California Treasurer Bill Lockyer did not sugarcoat California’s fiscal problems, but he was quick to defend some of the comparisons made between Greece and California. First of all, California’s budget deficit represents less than 1% of the state’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) versus 13% for Greece. Greece’s accumulated debt stands at 109% of GDP – for California debt only represents 4% of the state’s GDP. What’s more, since 1800 Greece has arguably been in default more than not, where as California has never in its history defaulted on an obligation. 

The current California picture isn’t pretty though. This year’s fiscal budget deficit is estimated at $6 billion, leaping to $12 billion next year, and soaring to $20 billion per year longer term.

Legislative political bickering is at the core of the problem due to the constitutional inflexibility of a 2/3 majority vote requirement to get state laws passed. The vast bulk of states require a simple majority vote (> than 50%) – California holds the unique super-majority honor with only Arkansas and Rhode Island. Beyond mitigating partisan bickering, Lockyer made it clear no real progress would be made in budget cuts until core expenditures like education, healthcare, and prisons are attacked.

On the subject of bloatedness, depending on how you define government spending per capita, California ranks #2 or #4 lowest out of all states. Economies of scale help in a state representing 13% of the U.S.’ GDP, but Lockyer acknowledged the state could just be less fat than the other inefficient states.

Lockyer also tried to defend the state’s 10.5% blended tax rate (versus the national median of 9.8%), saying the disparity is not as severe as characterized by the media. He even implied there could be a little room to creep that rate upwards.

Finishing on an upbeat note, Lockyer recognized the January state revenues came in above expectations, but did not concede victory until a multi-month trend is established.

After filtering through several days of meetings regarding debt, you quickly realize how the debt culture (see D-E-B-T article), thanks to cheap money, led to a glut across federal governments, state governments, corporations, and consumers. Hopefully we have learned our lesson, and we are ready to climb out of this self created hole…before we get buried alive with risky debt.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF and TIP), but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm 2 comments

California the Golden State Turning Brown


ToastCalifornia is facing a significant cash crunch as the state attempts the narrowing of its $24 billion budget deficit. The crisis will come to a head now that the fiscal year, June 2009, budget deadline has passed. Without a budget resolution and in order to fill the budget gap, the California government will need to start issuing billions of government IOUs to contractors and vendors, local agencies handling health programs, as well as some receiving state aid.

Moodys rates the Golden State as the lowest rated state of all 50 at A2. The average rating for all states is AA2 and only two other states besides California are rated below AA. At the beginning of 2009 the state bought some breathing room by delaying cash tax refunds, but that cushion has rapidly deteriorated as the economy and employment outlook have deteriorated. Making things worse for the state, relative to other states, is the state constitutional inflexibility requiring voter approval for deficit borrowing.

Time will tell if Governor Schwarzenegger can gather the votes necessary to prevent bond defaults. President Obama and other states are watching closely as the actions (or inactions) will have a ripple through effect for everyone. At 13% of the nation’s GDP, California’s economy impacts the overall country in a significant manner.

Let’s hope the state maintains its “golden” status and does not get burnt.

July 2, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

The Governator: Terminate the Deficit or the Pooches?

Picture Source: Clusterstock

Picture Source: Clusterstock

The only way you get to save dollars is by saving nickels and dimes, so if saving overpaid bureaucrat wages requires Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sending pooches to doggy heaven a little early, then so be it. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office seems to believe $23 million can be saved by accelerating the pet euthanizing process for sheltered pets by three days.

Click Here for Article

Riding the California housing train was an enjoyable ride in California as home prices more than tripled from the late 1990s until the beginning of 2007. However, after rolling in piles of house tax collection receipts from exploding prices, the bubble based binge of tax revenue has now come to a screeching halt as home prices have declined by more than 50% from peak levels a few years ago (see chart below). Facing an 11.5% unemployment rate, the state is being kicked while it’s down on the ground – income tax collections are declining and businesses dealing with the relatively high cost of operations forcing businesses to run for the hills and leave the state.

Things obviously appear gloomy in California, but the Governator is showing his resolve to get the job done – as evidenced by his contemplation of the pet destruction option. My dog is sleeping inside tonight.

Prices Down Dramatically from Peak

Home Prices Down Dramatically from Peak

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP    

June 25, 2009 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

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